Long-term Business Success Means Seeing the Future

To ensure long-term success, you must engage in a comprehensive examination of your business that includes evaluating the past and "visioning" the future. This process involves what you have done and what you need to do to ensure that it has the "legs" to sustain itself.
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As many businesses have learned the hard way in the last 15 years, becoming established and having short-term success is no guarantee of sustaining long-term success. Increased competition, financial mismanagement, professional missteps, and economic downturns can all contribute to the downfall of a once-successful business.

The challenge for many companies, particularly small ones, is that they are so busy in the day-to-day operations of the business, the lack the time and energy to maintain an eye on the future that is essential for long-term success.

To ensure that long-term success, you must engage in a comprehensive examination of your business that includes evaluating the past and "visioning" the future. This process involves what you have done and what you need to do to ensure that it has the "legs" to sustain itself for many years to come.

Let me preface this exploration by offering two maxims that have served me well in the creation and sustainability of my own consulting business that has spanned more than 28 years. The first one is Albert Einstein's famous Law of Insanity: "Doing the same thing and expecting different results." Too often, in a company's efforts to grow its business, when things aren't working, it simply do what it's always done, just more and harder. Though sometimes persistent and intensified efforts can bring about a new result, more often than not, such efforts will simply continue to violate the Law of Insanity. The lesson from Einstein is simple: if something isn't working, do something different.

The second maxim is my far less famous Law of Stupidity: "If it's working, change it." I have seen companies in which something is working, yet they choose to make a change, for example, they attempt to enter a new market or provide new products, without a clear rationale or a deliberate process for doing so. That, of course, is just plain stupid (thus the maxim). Certainly, you want to continue to look for ways to grow and evolve your business. At the same time, if something is working, you should stick with it, particularly if it is a core part of your unique value proposition. You also don't want to change something in your business without a thorough understanding of the implications and risks of the change.

The Past

As the saying goes, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." As such, it is essential that you examine your business's past to gain a broad and deep understanding of what has worked and what hasn't and then use these insights to inform your future steps in sustaining your business in the long run. This scrutiny should include every aspect of your business:

  • Capabilities
  • Offerings
  • Markets
  • Research and development
  • Sales and marketing
  • Business operations
  • Finances
  • Other (any other areas that impact your business)

As a part of this exploration of your business's past, you should ask yourself four questions:

  1. What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  2. What have we done that has worked and hasn't worked?
  3. What mistakes have we made?
  4. What would we do differently if we had it to do over?
With an in-depth understanding of all aspects of your business, you can ask a final question: What lessons and insights can we learn from this investigation to guide us as we look to and attempt to shape the future of our company?

20/20 hindsight may seem of little value because you can't do anything about the past. But, this look back can help you sharpen your vision as you gaze into your crystal ball to foresee and, in fact, shape your company's future. The lesson you can garner from the two maxims I described above is that you must consider carefully what has and hasn't worked in the past and, relying on the wisdom of the two maxims, deliberately choose to continue that which works and discard that which doesn't.

The Future

Once you've looked back at the past, you must conduct an exploration of the areas that will enable your company to "stay ahead of the curve" and ensure that you have prepared for the sustained success of your business.

Though you don't have the capacity to see into and predict your future, you do, nonetheless, have some ability to create and control your company's future. This process of foresight is essential because by knowing what you want your company to be doing and where you want it to be in, say, five or ten years, you can then take proactive steps that will increase the chances of that future becoming a reality. Here is the most important question to ask: What do we need to do to ensure that our business thrives for many years to come?

Your answer to this question will identify the actions your company will have to take to fulfill your vision for its future. Your challenge in answering this question is that the world is changing so rapidly and in so many ways, it's difficult to know how your business needs to change to keep up.

One thing is very clear: if your business doesn't evolve, it will suffer the same fate as Blockbuster and Blackberry, both of whom went from industry-leading companies to their deathbeds within just a few years. Why did they fall so far so quickly? These companies also didn't look to the future and see the trends that were evident to their competitors such as Netflix and Apple. They became complacent with their success, assuming their current status would ensure their future status. Additionally, they lost the agility to adapt and evolve that is more common in younger and smaller companies. These companies, having become dominant in their industries, lost their competitive edge and their desire and belief in the need to innovate.

You want to ensure that your business doesn't fall prey to these same forces that can infect any successful business. To that end, there are four primary areas in which you will want to direct your energies in a way that will best prepare your company for a successful future.

First, you should constantly explore your company's capabilities. Which of those capacities will serve it well in the years ahead and which won't? A careful analysis can help you to identify which of them to retain, which to jettison, and what new capabilities might strengthen your company's position in the marketplace.

Second, you will want to look for trends that will shape the services, programs, and products you offer to your target market. You can identify key trends by listening carefully to the evolving needs and goals of your customers. When they express a new need or goal, you can then develop new offerings proactively that will fulfill them. You can also identify trends by following the latest news and developments in your target markets.

Third, it is likely that, in the process of creating a sustainable business, your company establishes itself as a leader in a particular market that generates a considerable amount of your customer base and revenues. At the same time, it can be risky to focus too much on one market. What happens if that market collapses for some reason? Just as with financial investing, as you build your business, you will want to diversify your markets, so that if one market slows down, you can pick up the slack with customers from another.

Selecting which new market to enter can be determined in several ways. You may see a trend in the media in which there are frequent mentions of the need for a new service or product that your company can offer. Sometimes, a new market presents itself serendipitously, for example, when you meet someone who asks whether your company's capabilities can be used in a new market.

Of course, before your company enters a new market, you want to do a comprehensive analysis that includes several key factors. You want to investigate the size of the market, the saturation of similar businesses you may have to compete with, and the availability of resources to make entry financially beneficial to your company. In any case, you should constantly be on the lookout for new markets into which you can expand your business, yet also do your due diligence to ensure that entry into the market will be worth it.

Finally, the increasingly influential role of the Internet demands that you keep up with and look ahead for the use of technology in all aspects of your business. How will technology evolve over the next decade and how can you leverage new trends to maximize your company's benefits to its customers? With each new technological development, you should ask yourself how your company might be able to use it to optimize your offerings and your customers' experience.

You should also stay ahead of the curve in how you use technology in the broader operations of your business. For example, what new technologies will enable you invoice your customers more efficiently and allow your customers to pay you more easily? How can you use the growing use of social media to expand your presence and reach a larger and more diverse target market? I recommend that you follow the latest technology news and with each announcement of a new innovation, consider how you can use it to continue to develop your business.

One of your greatest challenges in building a business that will be successful in the coming year, the next decade, and beyond is that there are so many things do every day and limited time in which to do them. Yet, to be sustainable well into the future, your company must constantly grow and evolve. Despite the time and energy required for the day-to-day operations of your business, you must have the commitment, discipline, creativity, and entrepreneurial spirit to continue to look to the future, recognize trends, and continually innovate all aspects of your business.

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