After the kind of year we just had, and the first week of this year, I’m not going to try to make predictions for 2021. But I think it’s important to ask which traits are important for businesses to embody in the year ahead. I gave careful thought about the kinds of traits characterizing the businesses coming out of 2020 positioned to succeed. Not everyone combines these well, but the companies and people I admire embed them every day:
Our concept of empathy has changed for the better. In recent years, businesses have adopted a more empathetic mindset designing products for customers. In 2020, many businesses began to think more broadly about empathy to include their own employees. The pandemic has made business leaders more sensitive to the mental health needs of their own people. It used to be taboo to discuss in the workplace how emotional and mental pressures affect us. That taboo went away as the impact of the pandemic intensified. Businesses that build empathy from the inside out will set themselves up for long-term success. That’s because they’ll operate with a stronger foundation for embedding empathy in everything they do.
The fog is lifting. Businesses are becoming more aware of the need to put people at the center of every experience. They’re finally figuring out that if people distrust a technology such as artificial intelligence, they’ll reject it. That’s why businesses are being more thoughtful about designing for emotional trust. They’re embracing mindful AI, in which AI solutions support human wants and needs. Ironically, technology is becoming even more useful to people than it has ever been. For example, digital technology can help people cope with the isolation of living at home during lockdown. But for technology to live up to its potential, people have to trust it. And building trust is on the enterprise, not the person.
Agility is another trait that businesses have been writing about for a long time. Why does agility matter for businesses? Because agility builds resilience, and resilient teams are able to adapt and change to navigate through times of uncertainty. Think about the retailers that needed to throw away their annual and seasonal marketing and sales campaigns – Back to School and holidays comes to mind — when consumer behavior the pandemic made longtime assumptions about these traditions irrelevant. One area of growth for many businesses is agile financial planning. How do you create a budget when you don’t know what’s around the corner? Many businesses will adopt an approach that resembles innovation accounting (aka metered funding). With metered funding (which took hold originally in the venture capital community), enterprises invest like startups do. Ideas requiring funding are presented to decision makers. The decision makers allocate funding over a series of rounds tied to goals and milestones. In the early stages of a product’s lifecycle, funding is learning based, and in the latter stages, funding is growth based. This kind of approach is healthy under any circumstance and can be incredibly valuable when a business needs to avoid getting locked into long-term budgets. Read more about that here.
Being part of an ecosystem is essential for businesses to innovate. The emergence of ecosystems has changed the game for brands in terms of establishing alliances, understanding sector boundaries, and redefining business models. Now more than ever I believe companies need to understand how to operate as an ecosystem to succeed — which is to say, to survive at a time when you either grow or you die. Companies such as such as Apple, Best Buy, Instacart, UPS, and Bosch are embracing an ecosystem mindset to turn crises into opportunities through innovations in last mile delivery. By looking at the customer as the source of value and then asking what lovable products need to be created to delight that customer beyond their four walls, these companies provide a blueprint for how to succeed via ecosystems.
Is it possible to be hopeful for the year ahead? Yes, but with a caveat. I read recently in The Daily Stoic that hope and fear are the same. They are both projections of a future over which we have no control. Both are the enemy of the present moment. Both hope and fear contain a dangerous amount of want and worry. Want is what causes worry. I give myself room to hope. But I don’t allow hope to cloud my understanding of the present day any more than I allow fear to do that.
The present day is all we can count on.