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Business planning in uncertain times

Posted by Christine Mulcahy on January 11, 2023 9:10:27 AM PST
Christine Mulcahy


It’s funny, isn’t it? The concept of uncertain times … aren’t all times uncertain? And yet, there are definitely times when we feel more confident making long-range business plans or banking on expected returns. These are not those times. With economists debating whether we’re on the brink of recession, mid-way through it, or almost over it, the only certainty we have is that nobody is sure what’s going on in a post-pandemic economy with unpredictable geo-political and cybersecurity risks coming at us from all angles.  

But one thing is certain … every business owner I know is working diligently to manage costs, mitigate risks, and devise strategies for growth. At the risk of pointing out the obvious … this is what executives should always be doing, but sometimes we refocus our energies with more urgency (for other obvious reasons). Nobody is an expert at navigating uncertain economic times, but after decades in the industry, I do have some tried and true best practices to help you plan accordingly. 

Get small 

This is the hardest of the practices because nobody likes to downsize. There is material impact to your business, your team members, and morale when people have to be laid off for financial reasons. But remember this … as much as you want to minimize impact to individuals, the fact is that your role is to protect the business. Because if the business doesn’t survive, then no one has a job, and there are plenty of other people on the payroll who can position the business for a strong rebound. So, keeping the business healthy might require personnel reductions. There’s no easy way to say it, and no trite silver lining to make it easier. But you can do your best to help people find their way … 

  • Ensure your healthcare plan offers COBRA benefits so impacted employees can keep their benefits intact while they search for their next opportunity. 
  • Offer as much severance as you can afford − it might be a couple weeks or a month but make an effort to let people know you’re trying to help them. In other words, give them time to look for other work while you can still afford their salary expense for a limited amount of time. 
  • Connect with a recruiter or an agency that can help your former employees land their next gig − make introductions to help accelerate the process. 
  • Offer to provide recommendations, or proactively write recommendations on their LinkedIn profiles and promote them to your networks to help them gain visibility. 
  • Be an ally and an advocate for your former employees − you helped shape them into the stellar job candidates they are today. 

Meanwhile, salaries aren’t the only line items in your P/L that might require reductions. Take a close look at all the software licenses you are paying for every month − have you fully deployed them? Are your team members utilizing all the features and functionality you’re paying for? Are there less expensive licenses that offer only what you need? Or have you invested in overlapping or duplicate tools that provide the same functionality? Perhaps some departments like one system and others prefer a different tool but both offer workflow or communication services. It might be time to consolidate and re-train on a standardized solution to optimize costs. Canceling subscriptions you’re no longer using, switching phone carriers, and re-evaluating office space post-pandemic can all help mitigate costs − maybe more significantly than you imagine. 

Of course, replacing travel budgets with virtual meetings and minimizing non-essential spend is an obvious cost reduction strategy. But investing in morale boosters for your remaining employees might also be important given the initial shock of losing team members and the uncertainty they might feel in their own job security − even if you’ve assured them they’re safe.  

Like I said, downsizing is never easy, but I’ve learned to look at it like pruning a tree in the fall so it can grow to its fullest potential in the spring and summer, bearing the best fruit, rather than fruit that struggles to survive. Sometimes the cuts hurt and sometimes they’re deeper than others but pruning your business to keep it healthy and strong will pay dividends in the future. Getting small won’t last forever. But it will allow you to stay healthy so you can grow again. 

Dream big 

And growing again is exactly where you need to concentrate your efforts once those cuts have been made. Dreaming big dreams of what your future looks like should occupy your time and energy. But don’t keep the fun part to yourself. Invite your team members to join you in these envisioning exercises. They’ve been closest to your customers, partners, and the industry while you’ve been busy managing the business. They likely recognize pains that could be solved with a solution you could provide. Or, they’ve been looking at what competitors are offering, or even attending industry events to see where the market is headed. Tap their creativity. Ask them to share their dreams. Incentivize them to dream big.  

We won’t all spin up a new widget or launch a new product overnight. But the people who are still on your team made the cut because they’ve developed some type of intellectual property. They are doing something better, faster, smarter than their colleagues were. They are incorporating more context into their conversations, researching the market from a different angle, or providing value-added services and support they’ve adopted or created on their own. What is it? What sets your team members apart? What makes them successful?  

Is it an internal process or innovation? Have they hacked a system or found a faster path to market? Have they written their own scripts, or accelerated an engagement? Everyone does something differently. Gather those best practices. Share them across your team to help everyone optimize their work. But more than that, figure out how you can package up their success and sell it to the market. As the proverb says, “necessity is the mother of invention,” so take your need to get small and turn it into an opportunity to dream big. 

Balance in the middle 

It’s difficult to find balance in the middle of downsizing while imagining explosive growth potential. It’s a mental and emotional tightrope. But learning to control what you can control and then planning for best- and worst-case scenarios around what you cannot control is the best balance you can find. Otherwise, you’ll waste time and energy trying to control what you cannot control.  

I’m a list maker, so I suggest making a list … something like this: 

What can I control? What can I *not* control? 
  • Operating budget 
  • System and tools optimization  
  • Incentives 
  • Team culture 
  • Leadership philosophy and styles 
  • Brand identity 
  • Thought leadership 
  • Networking engagements 
  • Research and development 
  • Product and solution builds 
  • Marketing campaigns 
  • Sales conversations 
  • The global economy 
  • Shifting market dynamics 
  • Client budgets and business priorities 


As it turns out, there are likely MORE things you can control than those you cannot, even when it feels like those you cannot have disproportionate impact. But consider this … when your company was a start-up (or you were early in your career or new in a role), you had many fewer things you could control and many more you could not. And you forged a path, broke into the market, established yourself as a strong and credible candidate, gained trust, and built your reputation. And you will do it again. And again. 

Make a plan for the things you can control and how you will control them. Get small where you can, dream big where you are able, and then make more lists … events to attend, campaigns to launch, people to re-connect with.  

Once you have inspired yourself, take a look at the things you can *not* control. They only move in two directions − positive or negative. You have to plan for both. What happens if the global economy crashes? What if it booms? What happens if the market moves in your favor? What if it does not? What if your clients’ budgets are frozen? What will you do when the budgets open again? Don’t let the uncertainty paralyze you. Use it as a call to action … a call to get creative. A call to imagine the unimaginable. A call to be more prepared than you’ve ever been.  

Start today! 

Meanwhile, if you need me, I’ll be in a van down by the river making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich … jokes … I’ll be right here. Sitting in front of my laptop, grinding away on the next big plan. Inspiring my team to envision our brightest horizons yet. Imagining the many ways we can integrate AI into our solution offerings. Packaging up our decades worth of IP and turning it into an industry-disrupting app. Investing in our team’s leadership development skills. Coaching associate-level team members on how to navigate this wild world. All so that I can one day retire and actually … live in a van down by the river eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. 😊 

But really, if you’d like to chat through your business plans for the year, think about how to get small, dream big, or balance in the middle, I’m right here at contact@theodigogroup.com. We’ve helped the world’s largest enterprises and some of the smallest businesses find their North Stars, break down complex plans into simple steps, launch wildly successful marketing campaigns, and uncover millions of dollars in sales revenue. We can help you no matter where you are in your business journey. Reach out any time. 


Topics: Consulting, Leadership