What do oyster farming, planning, and your business have in common?
If you work in the oyster farming business, then one thing is certain: everything can—and will—go wrong in your business. Wind, rain, tidal swells, oil spills, and sea sickness to name a few. Rest assured, there will be an obstacle in your way.
So how do you plan for a business in which everything is a problem and nothing is for certain? Planning is difficult enough for any business. It takes time and intention—and knowing the results you want and how you’re going to get them. How often has a plan fallen by the wayside for unforeseen circumstances and pivoting meant starting over from scratch? If you’re like most business owners, that scenario is probably more true than not. So what can you do to reduce your vulnerabilities? How can you plan for the things you don’t expect?
The answer is a bit of a conundrum: you don’t, and yet, you do.
When I began coaching Drew, his oyster business was, for lack of a better term, a nightmare. Like many first-time business owners, Drew had a great understanding of the technical work of the business, but beyond that, everything was a blank page. In fact, he didn’t even want to own the business initially. He was an employee and found out the owner was going to leave the company. So out of fear of losing his job, Drew bought it. Not only was his business controlled by the environment, language-barriers made communicating with his team an added challenge. Reluctantly, one day, I said, “Drew, do you ever think about selling your business?” He responded with, “Adam, that’s the wrong question. What you should be asking me is, how many times a day do I think about selling it?”
It seemed everything was beyond his reach, and the only thing he knew for certain was that everything can and will go wrong.
- Step 1: Accept and expect the worst.
For Drew, the “worst” was everything. But for most businesses, the “worst” is often simple. If you run an internet-based business, what happens if there’s a power outage and no WiFi? What about a damaged pipe and a suddenly leaky ceiling? Broken machinery?
Eventually, something will happen in your business that you won’t be able to control or prevent. Don’t let fear keep you from seeing reality. While it’s not pleasant to think about the worst-case, accepting that these things happen allows you to prepare yourself to ride out the storm. With a plan in place, you won’t be left panicking and wondering, “What do we do now?!”
- Step 2: List all of your wild cards.
Wild cards are all the factors that will or can affect your business in any way. What does it look like if absolutely everything goes wrong? Without thinking about the solution, think only about the biggest challenges that could prevent you from doing business. Like Drew, you need to consider natural disasters, power outages, computer backup systems, or employees leaving on a whim without notice, just to name a few.
- Step 3: List how these wild cards affect the business.
What does it mean when everything goes wrong? Who does it affect? It’s not just you, the business owner, it’s also your investors and your employees. Who do you need to contact if something happens? If Drew was the only one who knew what to do in an emergency situation, what would happen if he wasn’t there to handle the problem?
Instead of leaving your business at the mercy of the domino-effect, create a list of all the people, places and things that would be affected by your worst-case scenarios. You might notice rather quickly that every area of your business is interconnected. By mapping out what could go wrong and who/what it affects, you’ll be able to see the places where you can strengthen or need more support.
- Step 4: Create a strategy for minimizing your vulnerability to wild cards.
One of Drew’s vulnerabilities was the language barrier between him and his employees. He knew that to reduce risk, he needed to be able to give directions clearly, so he developed processes with a maximum of five steps that could be explained through illustrations. He and his manager created simple checklists to help navigate through a variety of situations.
When it comes to strategizing for your business, knowing all of the things that could possibly affect you (Steps 1-3) will give you the ability to prepare and plan. Even though the power may not go out, or an earthquake may not happen, you have a plan for how to handle the situation. Think about the ways you can make changes today and what you can do in the long-term. Make the unforeseen visible because you’ll be able to manage it with confidence.
Here’s what you should be thinking about when creating your strategy:
- What do you absolutely need in order to produce the results you want?
- What can you do in the short-term to minimize your vulnerabilities?
- What about the long-term?
The strategies that Drew developed gave him an immense amount of freedom. Instead of managing his business from the day-to-day chaos, he was able to let go because his managers understood what to do next. His plans helped him and his team normalize difficult to navigate scenarios—adding more value to his business. Unlike other oyster farmers, Drew was ready to handle a wild card. He learned to limit his vulnerabilities to outside factors by accepting them and working through them.
Drew’s business was, of course, hit with one of those wild cards. An oil spill killed his competitors crops. There was a lot of damage, and news reporters and video cameras were surrounding the area just a few miles away from his farm. When I called, panicking and wondering what we needed to do, Drew simply and calmly said, “Adam, we have a plan for that.”