At Your Service: Feb. 4, 2009

Is it intelligent design or evolution? In one instance, we must believe that in the process of creation all factors were considered; in the other, that success hinges on adapting to a changing environment. In reality, we must plan for those circumstances we can foresee and be willing and able to adapt to market changes when we want our businesses to succeed.
In the initial stages of creating a business, there cannot be too much planning. It is simply smart to study and analyze the market and industry and determine what combination of skills and know-how will tip the scales of success in our favor. Whether we are offering goods, services or a combination of the two, sound intelligence may be the ultimate determining factor.
Planning prepares us not only for the moment that we actually start the business; it also enables us to deal with many of the circumstances we must face in the process of running it. Even unforeseen situations will be more manageable if we have done a thorough job of planning because some aspects of the new event will have been considered in that process.
Even the most thorough planning will leave us wondering how intelligent we really were to start a business if we are lucky enough to survive the first year. The market environment is often cruel and the longer we remain in business, the more often we will be required to change course in the midst of on-going success. This ability to remain flexible is the number one trait among the “fittest.”
While planning is a resource that provides additional information in the face of challenging circumstances, it can also lead to hazardous situations if we fail to be flexible in the use of that information. The value of information is that it opens up the field of options. We must also be willing at times to see beyond all the planned for options and create something completely new for our business.
We don’t have to go far to see examples of this flexibility at work in our own business community. What was once a telephone company is now a cable and Internet service provider because smart managers embraced emerging technologies over the course of an evolving decade. Responding to competition from a national chain, an independently owned drug store expanded to offer “alternative” health solutions in addition to its traditional fare and both businesses continue to thrive.
Competition may be the ultimate evolutionary factor for businesses. When we look at the origins of the word “compete” (“together + to strive, coincide, aim at, make for” from my trusty Oxford English Dictionary) it is easy to see how it serves us and also to identify ways in which it sometimes leads us astray. On the positive side, we see our own community being better served by the presence of multiple businesses offering overlapping goods and services. There is no doubt that having many restaurants offers the widest range of dining options and contributes to the area’s being able to attract more visitors.
On a national scale, it is easy to identify ways in which competition can lead to problems and excess. It has become a standard means of operation in many industries to outsource tasks to the cheapest provider. Using price as the overriding factor has led to the loss of countless American manufacturing jobs and what is now a staggering trade deficit with China.
Our economic woes are certainly more complex than can be explained by competitive spirit running amok, but it is an interesting way to view the situation. We are each faced with the question of what we will do to not only survive, but thrive within this challenging environment. No matter how intelligently we may have planned, we could not have foreseen the mix of problems and issues we face collectively and individually. Flexibility and creativity are now our most valuable resources.
Intelligent design or evolution? Those who thrive through this recession will find that a combination of good planning (it is never too late to plan forward) and the ability to adapt to changing conditions is the surest route to success.