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What Consultants Can Teach Us About Navigating Uncertainty

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September 18, 2020
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6 minutes
Lynn's diverse perspectives on business stem from her extensive experience as a management consultant - her role as a beloved wife, mother and grandmother adds further depth to her insights.

The word “uncertainty” has taken on a meaning we would have found difficult to contemplate just six months ago. To say that we are in uncharted seas must surely be an understatement.

The problem with uncertainty is that it leads to paralysis. Everything comes to a halt as we try to work out what happened, what is happening now, what might happen…

Unfortunately, this may be the very worst thing a business can do. In times of uncertainty, the only thing to do is to keep moving – as fast as we can.

Getting businesses moving and on track is the domain of consultants. Even though cash flow is tight and the future is uncertain, using consultant skills and freelance platforms may be crucial to successfully navigate the current choppy waters.

COVID-19 and Uncertainty Shock

What might be unique to this pandemic is that it has created uncertainty on every front.

The two big uncertainties that have been occupying the minds of governments occupy our minds too: lives or livelihoods? And as governments have wrestled with their choices and have generally opted for lockdowns in varying degrees of severity. We majorly found our own choices and freedoms increasingly limited and our sense of powerlessness and uncertainty growing.

Any economist will tell you that high uncertainty and a low GDP go together. Conversely, as uncertainty decreases, so economic growth returns. The same can probably be said for your business.

However, what is interesting is that the economy is not recovering in line with the lifting of lockdowns. It would seem that it is reacting to the changed behavior of individuals, households and businesses. They are not going back to what was normal. They have become extremely cautious, regardless of whether lockdowns are in place or not. This is what academics at the Kellogg School of Management were alluding to in their finding that, “’Uncertainty shock’ generated by the COVID-19 pandemic would likely account for around half of the fall in US GDP in 2020.”

Let’s explore just two of the not normal manifestations of the COVID-19 crisis to consider how our own businesses should respond to them and whether consultant skills might help:

  • The explosion of digitalization, and
  • Cautious consumer behavior.
“’Uncertainty shock’ generated by the COVID-19 pandemic would likely account for around half of the fall in US GDP in 2020.” - Kellogg School of Management, April 1, 2020

The Explosion of Digitalization

The shift to digital has been quite dramatic over the past months and it seems unlikely to reverse. Basically, companies around the world have moved employees from their offices, call centers and even factory floors to their homes, and have depended on digitized collaboration tools to keep them working and in touch. Multiple companies are considering retaining a work-from-home option.

Moreover, data-driven decision-making has become the mantra of the day. Sufficient real-time data allows companies to move faster and with more certainty. Companies that had already embarked on digitization found themselves at an advantage. For example, Marcus, the digital consumer version of Goldman Sachs. While all banks realized the need to defer payments on loans and credit cards, Marcus was able to roll out their entire program to customers in less than 72 hours. Another example is the incredible speed at which researchers are developing COVID-19 vaccines because of artificial intelligence (AI).

Industry 4.0 based on automation, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems may, till now, have seemed like a theory for the future. Many companies were considering changes to pockets of their operations, with rollouts mapped over a few years. Following COVID-19, the luxuries of time and silos no longer exist. Digitalization, which includes both digitization of data and the use of digital technologies, maybe the only way to react quickly to disruption, to share information and even to keep businesses running at all.

Now, the question is whether companies have the in-house skills base to achieve this at the speed and scale required or whether consultant skills may be called for.

The Challenge of Cautious Consumer Behavior

Some consumer trends that have become obvious over the past few months, as people have stayed home rather than venture out, include the following:

  • A rapid adoption of new digital services for work, play, entertainment, learning, communications and shopping
  • A decline in consumption, with significant changes in the mix of shopping baskets, mostly away from luxury items to household essentials and health
  • A change in the way people access information

Many of the tech companies have been benefited from these shifts. For example, Zoom grew from 10 million to 200 million daily users in three months. Netflix added 16 million subscribers and Disney+ doubled its subscriber base in 5 months. Live-streaming of sport events, concerts, conferences and even museum tours has become the order of the day. Print has suffered, but online news services, podcasts and radio have flourished.

Moreover, stores have changed their physical layouts and have pivoted to online systems for delivery or curbside pick-up. Restaurants have leveraged their supply chains and become retailers. Makers of luxury perfumes are using their bottling infrastructure for hand sanitizers. Car manufacturers can produce ventilators. Doctors, pharmacies and business consultants offer online advice. The list of adaptations is a long one.

However, if any of the trends in consumer behavior stick, then companies should perhaps be thinking beyond just immediate short-term responses to a possible review of their entire business models.

How Do Businesses Deal With Caution and Uncertainty Shock?

What should businesses do in this climate of caution and uncertainty? Along with digitalization and changes in consumer behavior, most of us are also facing challenges with productivity, supply chain reliability and risk, communication and interaction with staff and customers, among others.

Perhaps, we must do what we always do in business: consider and debate the options and alternatives and devise a strategy. A recent headline is probably apposite here: “Speed and clarity are the only known vaccines against the coronavirus crisis”.

Part of the solution might be to bring in someone from the outside to help. Expertise in strategy , supply chain, marketing, digitization, e-commerce, HR and change management seem to be key requirements. There are many freelance and independent consultants who have niche areas of expertise in these fields. And uncertainty, change and innovation are their stock-in-trade.

If we know that we have to take action, then it may be wise to explore freelance consulting platforms to find the expertise we need.

Services provided by the best freelance consulting platforms

Finding the right consultant for your needs can be difficult. The good news is that consulting has gone digital and now offers speed and affordability not always associated with consulting in the past. Good online consulting platforms give you access to an extensive pool of talent and reduce the uncertainty associated with finding the right consultant for your needs.

The best freelance platforms go further. They basically pre-screen both consultants and clients, providing security to both parties. The client has the assurance that the recommended freelancers have the requisite skills and experience. Moreover, the freelancer does not have to spend time looking for new clients, knows that the projects are genuine and has somewhere to turn in the event of a problem with a client. In addition, the consulting platform handles the administrative load, leaving time to focus on the work to be done.

Using consultants in times of uncertainty

Even at the best of times, there is a degree of uncertainty in developing strategies, and businesses often turn to consultants for clarity and expert opinion. In the time of COVID-19, uncertainty has become turbulence. Basically, experienced consultants – easily available via the best freelance platforms – can bring vision, perspective and expertise to steady the business boat.

Hopefully, we have learned some lessons from COVID-19. No matter what uncertainty surrounds us, we know that we are not powerless provided we keep moving, with our eyes on the future.