Business leaders are obsessed with solving problems — for good reason. But are they looking in the right places? A recent Internet search for “problems in business” on Google produced nearly two billion entries, and includes scores of pieces on the worst 20, ten or dozen problems.
But the truth is, business problems really fall into just three categories, and all have to do with what’s happening inside the business itself. The three —ignorance, ineptitude, and catastrophes — may rear their head in countless situations and endless forms, but the key is spotting the weaknesses that spawn them or can turn a momentary disaster into a long-term nightmare.
The great comic strip character, Pogo, made it clear when he said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Problems are going to happen in any business. But their outcome has everything to do with the strengths or weaknesses within. Better to learn how to anticipate the potential snafus and spot the weaknesses well before something can go really wrong. Practice asking these questions, as the more you do this, the steadier and surer you can lead:
1: What particular skills or knowledge do my team and I need to run the business effectively?
Ignorance is the fault of the business owner or potentially other managerial employees. The first step to take to overcome it is to recognize it. Failure due to ignorance regarding your business can strike either the management side or the operations side of a business. But it will apply to both you and your employees. Aim to fix this problem with education, such as an ongoing crash course in business management or the technical aspects of the work. Don’t let it go.
Whatever your business — whether you are a skilled tradesman running a service company or a merchant running the corner quick shop — your business requires a whole host of skills that you likely do not possess. Not everyone can know everything, to put it simply. You can learn them, or hire someone who has them. As your company grows or changes, there will be new things to learn and new skills to master. This is where outside firms — such as legal, consulting, accounting, human resources, or marketing — can advise, assist, and help you rigorously address the ignorance in your company’s personnel. There is no shame in ignorance for your employees: an MBA may not understand the practical skillset that’s the backbone of your business. But the converse is true for you: You devoted your life to becoming a pro at what you do rather than the intricacies of business management. It’s time to take that crash course.
2. What systems and procedures do we need in order to ensure that the work is executed efficiently, safely, and correctly the first time?
Ineptitude is not the same as ignorance. It covers things that you and your employees actually know yet still screw up. The fixes in this case entail tasks like systems, checklists, and routines.
Your goal is to minimize or, more ideally, prevent the element of human error — using sound management. This may be the most tedious part of a business owner’s job, but it is also the most liberating when done correctly. Once you get your systems, checklists, and routines in place for your employees, you’ve just made their job, and yours, much easier.
3. What foreseeable disasters can strike my business?
Catastrophes are the natural and man-made disasters that originate outside your business and hinder your goals. They may be forces of nature, such as a fire or hurricane, or market fluctuations. In western Oklahoma there are many companies depending on oil production for their livelihood. But in 2014, the oil price crashed — from $120 per barrel to down below $30. This was an absolutely disaster for those who didn’t see it coming. But my firm did see it coming, and helped our clients prepare for it, which meant it was not a catastrophe for them.
Look inside your business: A catastrophe could be caused by a disgruntled former employee, or by a dissatisfied customer who decides to disparage you on the Internet. Or, it may come from the competition. The only catastrophe you do have control over is a health crisis, but the truth is, way too many business owners are entirely blind to their own vulnerability. For the disasters truly beyond your control, anticipate their likelihood, and prepare for them. The key is sound foresight, coupled with preparation and often insurance.
A business is a complex human system that you oversee — and you are the answer to the “why” and “how” of problem development. You started the business, set it in motion and created the goals. There are often elements that arise that can make it a challenge to establish and maintain your business’s systems. But it’s far more effective to be able to foresee them than be caught in reactive mode. Keep your focus on these three basic areas of business failures, and you’ll be able to deal with them in an organized, efficient manner. And running your business will become that much easier.