Responding to the unexpected: How you react can make or break your business

Sometimes, entities from stockholders to the government can dramatically change your business. Here's how to respond.

Business person weathering storms

Image: VectorMine/Shutterstock

I recently spoke with a client in an externally-induced state of chaos, whereby their core product had essentially been declared "not fit for sale" by a government agency. Entire warehouses of products could no longer be shipped and sold. The only way to address the product problem was to accelerate the launch of a new series of products that met government regulations, a process that would take months, if not years. At the end of the day, this business was faced with a life-threatening situation, with the product that provided the majority of its revenue essentially illegal to sell in its primary market.

SEE: Juggling remote work with kids' education is a mammoth task. Here's how employers can help (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

While this particular situation might seem exceptional, we all went through an externally-driven event over which we had no control in the guise of a global pandemic. Anything from acts of nature, to regulatory bodies, to changes in organizational leadership can create unplanned and unforeseen changes in our organizations. Hopefully, a pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Still, something as routine as a new CEO can trigger mandates for sudden and dramatic change in a technology organization that may be just as profound and immutable. Responding to these changes, especially in uncertain times, can make or break a leader. Here are some suggestions for responding to the unexpected.

Quickly triage the severity, and plan how you'll reassess

Perhaps the most significant stressor created by unexpected change is assessing the magnitude and duration of that change. An understanding of whether a change is temporary or permanent will vary as more information becomes available. "Two weeks to flatten the curve" could turn into a months-long battle, or a seemingly business-ending supply constraint could suddenly resolve when a new supplier comes online.

Unless you have a magical ability to predict the future accurately, the best course of action is usually to assess the impact and severity of a situation based on the known facts. Rather than speculating on the millions of potential outcomes or nuances, agree to the current state of the world and move on to action, while establishing a timeframe for when you'll next assess the situation.

SEE: Tech projects for IT leaders: How to build a home lab (TechRepublic) 

Medical and emergency response teams around the globe use this concept of triage to assess and disposition the biggest problems on a regular cycle, and the same process applies when you're dealing with an organizational emergency brought on by unexpected change. Schedule regular intervals where your leadership convenes to continually determine how the situation is evolving, and develop improvements to your triage process. Once the metaphorical bleeding has stopped, you can speculate, postulate and reflect on the injustice of it all, but your initial bias should be toward actively assessing and dispositioning information as it arrives and quickly translating that into concrete action.

Assess your assets

Once you've established your triage cycle, consider what assets you have available. These could range from inventory to skill sets to supplier and partner relationships. Consider how you might use these assets in different ways, and what you might need to ration versus what might "expire" as events unfold. Depending on the situation, you might want to deploy your best team around the clock to work through a sensitive, yet short-duration crisis, while in another scenario, that team is kept in reserve if the situation appears to be a long-term challenge.

SEE: The new SMB stack (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature) | Download the free PDF version (TechRepublic)

If you lack a crucial asset, prioritize sourcing that asset or identifying an alternative. If you're shorthanded in a hot skill, consider sourcing that capacity before it's needed to avoid supply constraints. Conversely, think carefully before reducing your assets, particularly those that are difficult to rebuild. Several companies that significantly cut staff or production as an immediate response to the COVID-19 pandemic are now scrambling to replace that capacity, all while watching missed sales opportunities. Hindsight may skew our thinking in this particular situation, but in future cases, make sure you're not saving $1 now, at the cost of $100 in a few months.

Seek unconventional thinking and action

Uncertain times call for unconventional thinking and action. Demonstrate that the "old rules" around risk, innovation and partnering are suspended in the interest of responding to the unexpected. Many organizations were surprised as the "animal spirits" of their risk-adverse organizations were unleashed during the pandemic, as leaders sought and received new ideas and innovation from their teams. As leaders, it's our jobs to create environments where the expectation is that our people rise to the occasion, not cower in fear.

SEE: Burned out on burnout: Companies may be trying too hard to ease employee stress (TechRepublic)

Experiment and move forward

A key element to fostering unconventional thinking and action is allowing for experimentation and avoiding punishing failed experiments. Try new things, and if they fail, capture what you can learn from the failure and move on. Rather than the stupid bromide to "fail fast," make intelligent bets and allow them to be abandoned or redirected toward whatever is working more effectively. Eliminate the urge to publicly shun a failure.

SEE: If you're not launching a new business, you should be (TechRepublic)

It will likely take dozens of attempts to identify that new combination of assets or new products that thrive in the face of uncertainty. If you can quickly foster a culture that allows for this experimentation, using the unexpected event as a catalyst, you may be surprised at how quickly your teams unleash their creativity and evolve at an accelerated pace.

While unexpected events are downright traumatic as they occur, they can also bring out the best in leaders and entire organizations. Responding well to the unexpected can turn a problematic situation into an inflection point for your organization, ultimately resulting in something better and more effective.

Also see

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...