Surviving COVID-19 - was Darwin right?

Sally gives her thoughts on resilience and survival of the fittest in this crisis.

The origin of the species is based on natural selection where survival of the fittest forms the evolutionary path of the species. Whilst it may be true in nature, I think when it comes to business, evolution is now carving a new path. Let me explain:

Covid-19 is the epitome of equality

We have all become acutely aware than Covid-19 does not discriminate when it comes to victims – rich or poor, old or young, healthy or unhealthy there are no limits on the criteria for who will catch it and who won’t, with some able to brush it off like a mild cold whilst others need a ventilator to breathe. There is no question that older people and certain minority ethnic groups seem to the hardest hit in terms of survival rates, but only time will tell if they are more prone to infection in the first case, or whether they are less able to fight it off when they do get infected. The reason why it seems to be more serious for some minority groups is perhaps a genetic anomaly similar to sickle cell, but it seems the older population are less able to fight it off due to environmental factors such as failing immune system. So much is still unknown before Darwin’s theory can be proven.

Survival of the fittest.....businesses

Can the same be said about businesses? At the start of lockdown there were many businesses set up to successfully work from home, but as the weeks turn into months there are hardly any businesses who will not be affected by the sudden changes in the local and global marketplace.

Whilst coronavirus is now the worlds most written word ever, the favourite phrase right now on news programmes is “we live in unprecedented times” and for the majority of people alive today that is probably true. But those who have studied pandemics know that this is simply history repeating itself, when a new serious disease comes along which we have no immunity to a pandemic often results.

A brief history of Pandemic diseases

In terms of truly global epidemics the numbers of instances are relatively low but the number of deaths suffered in the past dwarf the death rate of Covid-19 so far experienced. Modern medicine of course is playing a huge part in that - the big pandemics of the past, like the Black Death (aka Black Plague) in the 14th century and Spanish Flu in early 20th Century suffered deaths in the millions because medical practice was basic at best and any treatments doctors did try were literally tested on live patients.

And there was little improvement in clinical and science led healthcare over several centuries because when the plague returned with a “new improved” two strain pandemic in the 17th Century the medical profession was no better equipped to deal with the huge numbers of deaths happening every day.

Now we find ourselves facing a similar unknown enemy, at least we have the comfort of knowing that modern medicine has transformed our chances of survival. Except is hasn’t, we have no cure - and why some people are affected badly whilst some shrug it off like a common cold is another unknown for the scientists to look into.

Global disruption - World Wars

The disruption to our lives isn’t unique either. During both world wars the nations’ lives were also turned upside down, but with a lot more hardship than the majority of us are suffering. Millions of people were called up to risk their lives for King and country, fighting on the frontline with many facing almost certain death. Today it is our amazing army of NHS staff, the battalions of carers and countless other key workers who are putting their lives on the line so that our lives can be saved if we simply stay in the house with a roof over our heads, food on the table and the warmth of knowing that in doing so you are literally saving countless lives.

Business Resilience

The UK is known as a nation of shopkeepers for a reason, because whilst retail is not the industry it once was, it is still the small and medium businesses which make up the majority of our economy. From a business perspective life at the moment varies from boom to bust depending on your market.

Using Darwin’s theory then “survival of the fittest” surely applies now to business as they face the greatest market uncertainty in the last 80 years. Well that depends on how you define fit, and outside of being able to work remotely with no disruption then every business is bound to be affected by the changes in market forces. So if fit means successful then is Darwin’s theory applicable or not?

The issue every business is facing is how to ensure your business survives the war. Some are managing fine with staff working from home but for many other businesses it is a very different story.

For those who are worried that they are not sufficiently equipped with digital technology and who are ill prepared to introduce new ways of working and agility in their business processes, life right now could be terrifying. Then again if they have also lost their usual customers then not being able to fulfil requests might be the least of your worries.

When your market disappears overnight, and stock levels are overflowing, the challenges are real and immediate. The news is littered with dairy farmers pouring milk down the drain and orchards of fruit destined for the scrap heap. I remember very clearly from my own experience of running a manufacturing business in the 1980s that the responsibilities for paying your staff, paying the bills, keeping your hugely valuable customers satisfied and ultimately ensuring your family has a roof over their head and food on the table can be almost crippling, and survival for a new business is literally lived week to week.

So as it was during both world wars, business survival has now become a focus for countless successful businesses - whose scenario planning didn't include a pandemic virus spreading everywhere on the planet in a matter of weeks. For many SMEs, surviving Covid-19 might be the greatest challenge they ever have to face.

Might our history reveal some useful tips for these businesses who may right now be laying off their staff and feeling completely hopeless?

During both World Wars the job of keeping businesses all over the country fell to those who stayed at home, many of whom were not normally involved in that business. History tells us that many of those businesses not only survived both wars but actually thrived. Their normal life had been turned upside down just like ours has, and they quickly worked out that the secret to survival was by adapting, diversifying or completely reimagining your business as if it was a new start.

Take the present situation out of the equation, for now that reality is gone. The options open to you vary from reasonably straightforward to rather complex, and a lot depends on whether you sell things or sell services.

For widget based businesses there are a number of options to consider.

Find new customers by piggy backing on established marketplaces

Start with your current product lines. Do the end consumers of them still want them? If you are selling luxury cars then the answer may be no but if you sell cleaning products then the answer is a resounding yes. So you just need to think creatively about how to get your product to the people who need them. Investigate new channels, new partners, new logistics providers – and take advantage of readymade marketplaces like Amazon. For instance if you are a wholesaler or manufacturer of soap, then consider selling your stock direct to the consumer. Pick as many channels as you think would work and start listing. Ecommerce software is available that will help you co-ordinate orders and listings through multiple marketplaces.

Innovation is the best way out of a crisis

If there is little demand for your existing products then research what is still selling widely. Then think about your assets – your staff and their skills, your stock, your processes, your products and your infrastructure. Some employees may have skills you didn’t realise they had so now is the time for those conversations. What is in high demand that you could possibly adapt your talent pool, resources and processes in order to supply? We have all heard the stories of the big brands diverting their production to face masks, or hand gel and they should be applauded for doing so. There is no reason why SMEs cannot do the same. By using the skills and tools available to do something entirely different, survival is much more likely – and much more deserved.

Automate Processes

Since the weakest link in the chain is the human then it makes sense flr businesses to automate as many of their processes as possible so that when demand does increase via channels or diversification they can be fulfilled without danger to key workers.

The other side of the coin

You have no doubt heard of some businesses who just called a meeting and announced that everyone was being laid off with immediate effect on day one of the social distancing restrictions. If they had just had a little more humanity and waited to see the government response before reacting then many would have found that the furlough scheme would allow them to keep their valuable workforce and more importantly continue to give the employees some income. They are the businesses who won’t survive and don’t deserve to either - not just because they don’t have an ounce of consideration for their staff, but because they have no belief in their ability to adapt.

Businesses who provide services

For service based businesses the theory is the same but the possibilities could vary from few to many depending on how niche your skillset is. So first step is to lconsider your current market and services – is there still demand? Are some sectors more buoyant? How can you target those markets using new business development tools or techniques. If that isn’t an option then next step is to look at your skills pool and try to include the specific work history and experience of your employees. Are there other services you could provide that might help the services under the most pressure like the care sector or local shops. Or can you #payitforward and help your customers or other businesses to weather the storm? Even passing on these tips could be the intervention that makes the difference. Using imagination and looking at your business through new lenses a whole world of possibilities might be awaiting.

Global or Community Unity?

If Covid-19 has proved anything it is that global unity against a common enemy is possible and that unity starts in your community. This bodes well for the climate and environmental emergency measures that we are all going to have to face soon. Covid-19 is the dress rehearsal if you will, and once again it is the ability to adapt that will ensure survival.

Just as they great man himself said:

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. Charles Darwin, 1809

Webinar | De-risking software development practices

19 November 2020

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