A global pandemic. Six months and many changes to lives and culture later, the experience is not that different. While the shock, intensity, and urgency of March have subsided, we still find ourselves bobbing around in a sea of uncertainty. For some business owners, opportunity has knocked, and those businesses may even be posting "best ever" sales and earnings. For others, this is nothing short of a full-blown depression, with bankruptcy, mass layoffs, and even liquidations taking place or likely over the next 12-24 months. It's not hard to figure out which businesses fall into which camp.
Lots of Danger. And some opportunity. There's a popular narrative that the Chinese word for crisis (weiji) is made up of two characters, one representing danger and the other representing opportunity. Turns out that narrative is good business for business consultants, but it's not true. According to sinologist Victor Mair of the University of Pennsylvania, the first character (wei) does indeed refer to "danger" but the second character (ji) is more accurately translated as "change point."1
Danger and change point. Maybe this is a better way to think about the threats we encounter in business. "Change point" to me implies some sort of inflexion or new path. Coupled with danger, change point might say that "something is presenting as a threat; if I don't change, I'll be harmed, or I'll die; what move can I make to minimize the harm or stay alive?"
In business, sometimes there are no good moves in the face of a major threat. Sometimes there are no “opportunities.” Sometimes all the choices are ugly, and we are left to decide between bad and awful. And that's when leaders really come of age, because never is more energy and will needed than when it's time to get off the floor, eat some humble pie, and execute on the least worst option. Like when the software company has to put their hiring ramp up into hard reverse when their largest customer decides to switch to a competitor - and the beautiful vision the CEO just sold to all the new hires is shredded into disarray. Like when the government consulting company borrows to fund an acquisition that doubles the size of the business only to see the acquired company's sales team depart a year later - and sales crater and covenants are blown and the bank comes calling. Like when the hospitality services company gets hit by a pandemic and revenue drops 60% in three months - and the owner must decide to limp along and fight to play another day or shut down her life's work.
Call it opportunity, or call it change point. Call it something much worse - as you will - when your choices are bad or awful. The point is that, ugly or not, there's always a move to make.
Is this a game I can still win?
If the answer is yes, what is it going to take to win again?
If the answer is no, is there another game I can play and win?
And if there is another game I can play, do I take what I have and reorganize?
Or do I shut down and start all over?