Coping with changes in your business

Coping with changes in your business

Coping with changes in your business

By John Bittleston

This article was first published in Business Times on 23 January 2018

“To deal with change, change” seemed a good way to open a discussion on the subject recently. I might as well have opened Pandora’s box. There was uproar. Everyone was already doing that, they said, and yet they were unhappy, distracted and muddled about where they were going. Why such disturbance? In the calm that followed one thing emerged. They wanted change to change nothing. They are perfectly comfortable as they are. They must learn to be comfortable with change.

Because in today’s world, the only thing certain is change. Competition now mostly comes from newly-identified, newly-met needs, or innovative technologies and discoveries about the human condition that allow better control over it. Furthermore, technological advances like artificial intelligence, robotics and digitisation are changing a business’ processes, culture and even purpose. Those changes that don’t simply provide new business opportunities threaten a company’s stability – or its very existence. How do you manage a business that is subject to swift and unexpected changes?

In many cases, it is necessary for a business to maintain some level of secrecy about its next steps until things are clear enough to be made known. For example, for publicly-listed companies, confidentiality of business plans is required by law, as changes could affect the value of company shares, resulting in a risk of insider trading. However, even smaller companies need to keep future plans close to the chest, until they are sure of the direction they are taking.

Keep a lookout for change
Shrewd employees, savvy industry experts and connected competitors are bound to get a whiff that something is going on. Putting two and two together is not that difficult. This brings me to my first suggestion for coping with change – always keep a lookout for it. Just as a doctor watches for signs of improvement or worsening in a patient, so too managers must observe straws in the wind that presage change. Often, customers provide the first clue. They are besieged by others wanting to sell to them and usually have a wealth of knowledge on competitors’ products. Talk to your customers and find out which other brands they are exploring and why.

For example, when I was building the Brands Essence of Chicken business, I was chatting to a customer. She casually mentioned that her family liked essence of chicken but were into supplements generally – and particularly enjoyed a bird’s nest soup she made for them. I asked her for the recipe and she told me that it wasn’t the recipe that mattered but the time spent preparing the product, which needed a lot of preparatory work. It took her hours to make her family’s treat. A few months later, we launched Birds Nest Tonic and it became as big as any of our products within six months. Our customer got the first case free.

Maintain open communications
Most leaders try to keep potential business changes quiet, so as not to rock the boat. This is a mistake. The boat is most rocked by rumours; facts tend to stabilise it. And the more you try to hush things up, the more the rumours swirl. So it makes sense to get everyone talking about potential change, as long as it does not infringe ‘insider’ rules. Once the new direction is set, communicate it clearly across the company. Start with the leadership team, ensuring leaders embrace the new approach first, before they communicate and motivate the rest of the company. The company that shares well, fares well.

Have a Plan B ready
If there are going to be major upheavals, have a contingency plan. Some employees will quit; they will be the ones who were not sure-footed in the first place. Sensible employees will sound out the possibility of other jobs. If you discover they are being offered better terms, think about adjusting yours. Competition in the labour market has been thrown open by change but reviews remain doggedly annual.

Take care of your employees
Your employees’ future career path is a subject close to their hearts. Get them thinking about it positively before it starts them thinking about it negatively. Any significant change is going to mean upheaval for them – new leaders brought in, new roles created, a change in corporate culture or new ways of doing things. Employees will resist. Help them to quietly and sensibly understand the pace of business today. Maintaining open communications will do wonders here. In some situations, such as a downsizing, employees are going to be negatively impacted by the change. If this is the case, reassure employees of your loyalty to them and try to negotiate the best deal for them.

No one has a crystal ball to tell the future. We know it will be rocky, like the weather. Expect storms in business as well as in the Pacific. Prepare your colleagues for this. Get them to accept the idea that the best way to deal with change is to change.

Those I spoke to on the subject now agree. So will your colleagues.