How To Spot When Things Are Going Wrong Before It’s Too Late

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Friday, 7.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Who lets slip fortune, her shall never find: Occasion once past by, is bald behind. – Abraham Cowley, Pyramus and Thisbe, XV.

Every once in a while it’s worth spending some time thinking through all the ways in which you can fail.

That might not be seen as a very positive thing to do – surely you should be setting big, hairy, ambitious goals and focusing on daily rituals and looking up and ahead to where you want to be.

Except that if something trips you up it’s probably going to be down there on the ground.

So, when you’re ready to actually do something and start a journey towards that distant, better future, you ought to consider taking a look at what the road looks like.

These ideas are explored in Adrian J. Slywotzky’s book The upside: The 7 strategies for turning big threats into growth breakthroughs.

The book is about strategic risk – the kind of thing that can sneak up on you when you’re not looking.

Slywotzky argues that we’re familiar with certain kinds of risk – risks like those from natural hazards, financial risks from markets and operational risks to our organisations.

We’re less familiar with strategic ones – things that change the game we’re playing.

I’ve selected six ideas that seem useful from the ones he presents in the book – ideas that seem worth testing against your business or even your career.

And the way to test them is to ask questions. Questions like:

What makes you unique?

This is actually quite a hard one to answer.

Lots of people come out with generic answers – we’re nice people, we are passionate about service.

But most people could say that, and most would find it hard to point to any evidence that they were unique.

What makes you unique might actually be that you are oddly passionate about – or you’ve worked for a long time and developed a certain skill.

Or it could come from combining two or three things that are themselves ordinary but together create something unique.

As Scott Adams did, combining cartooning, engineering and humour to create Dilbert.

How well do you know what your customers need?

This is something that is very easy to forget.

If you’re an employee your manager is your customer, not your boss.

If you don’t know what they need then how will you serve them effectively?

Too many people wait to be told what to do rather than finding out what their customers need and creating it for them.

And businesses do that all the time – they start by being interested and then, over time, get complacent and forget about customers.

Who then move on.

Are you obsolete?

The fact is that things become obsolete all the time – especially things you know.

Who needs cassette tapes in a world of on-demand media?

If you aren’t learning all the time then you’re in trouble – and heading for the scrapheap.

One of my favourite questions is “When do you stop being a promising young person?”

Hopefully you’ll still be one well into your nineties.

Is there a mega competitor out there?

Amazon anybody?

Retail is being shaken up by Amazon and Ebay in no small way – it’s transforming the way transactional business is done and how we get goods we don’t need at prices we don’t mind paying.

When someone like Amazon enters everybody selling tat has to shut up shop because Amazon can sell more tat 24/7 than you can.

Does anyone know what you do or did any more?

We’ve all got those people in the workplace – the ones who do something but we’re not quite sure what.

Some businesses are like that as well, they were once promising but now they’re fading – perhaps never to return.

Is your market going nowhere?

Are you stuck in a career or business that has no growth, no development?

You don’t make enough to invest and create new capability or get new customers – but you still have enough to get by and survive – but it’s a poor deal.

It’s no fun being trapped in a situation – one you can’t get out of.

The time to act… was some time back

The thing about risks like these is that once you can see what’s happening it’s often too late to do anything about it.

It’s going to take time to sort out the situation – dig yourself out of the hole you’ve unwittingly fallen into.

The solution, according to Slywotzky, is to get better at designing for risks – being aware of and preparing for risks – perhaps even being ready to profit from them.

I’m not so sure about that.

Often the risk that comes along and derails everything is not the one you’ve prepared for.

As they say, armies spend their time training to fight the last war.

What’s important, perhaps, is a healthy sense of paranoia.

Run scenarios where things go wrong – and think through how you would respond.

Train and learn and learn and train.

And, as the Scouts would say, Be Prepared.

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