4 Expert-Backed Strategies for Growing Your Business During Uncertain Times
It comes down to being adaptable, thinking big-picture and focusing on what you can control.
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As humans, we crave a certain degree of predictability — the coffee place will be open; the train will arrive on time; our favorite show will be available for streaming on Netflix. These past couple of years, however, have introduced never before seen levels of unpredictability. From an evolutionary perspective, some experts think that our brains aren't wired for such uncertainty, and as a result, our businesses may be suffering.
According to Harvard Business Review, uncertainty can cause decreases in motivation, focus, agility, cooperative behavior, self-control, sense of purpose and meaning and overall wellbeing, not to mention it can impair your working memory. With competition as fierce as it is today, no entrepreneur can afford to sacrifice these qualities.
Since launching my company Jotform 15 years ago, I've had to learn how to manage the inherent stress and uncertainty of being an entrepreneur, especially in a market with daunting competitors like Google. The pandemic forced me to confront those hard-earned lessons all over again and to figure out how to continue growing despite the uncertainty.
In times when the world feels more volatile than usual, it's worth considering how to lean into unpredictability. Here, a few expert-backed strategies.
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1. Embrace the uncertainty
It bears repeating: Uncertainty is intrinsic to the gig of being an entrepreneur. As The Journal of Management explains, "because entrepreneurs are often exploiting new, untried market opportunities, they must often make decision rights and residual claims choices before the economic value associated with exploiting a market opportunity is known, even probabilistically." In short: Entrepreneurs must make bets without knowing the outcomes.
Nonetheless, there are ways to grow your business while minimizing the uncertainty; you can succeed as an entrepreneur and still manage to sleep at night. For me, the key is listening to customers. Rather than focusing on the competition, focusing on customers ensures that you're offering them products or services that they actually need and evolving to give them what they want (maybe before they even realize it). It might require growing a bit slower; it might mean you don't capture the headlines of Tech Crunch. But listening to users can ensure long-term, sustainable growth.
How do you listen?
Start with user research — figure out what your users want and how they view your product. For example, years ago, when we figured out that our users saw our products not just as forms but as productivity tools, it impacted how we expanded and the various products we rolled out thereafter. We got there by listening.
2. Be adaptable
According to the Journal of Management and Organization, there are two options for addressing uncertainty — the first, and arguably more instinctive way, involves forecasting and making plans based on those forecasts. Consider the farmer — she uses various tools to predict her likely crop output and makes plans accordingly. The second, which is more useful during volatile times, is the adaptive approach: being "prepared to react accordingly and to try, not only to reduce any possible harm from the unexpected, but also to maximize its possible advantage." In other words, to exploit the uncertainty rather than run from it.
You might be wondering: How do I do that?
Get comfortable with trial and error. As economist Tim Harford writes in his book, Adapt,: "First, try new things, expecting that some will fail. Second, make failure survivable: Create safe spaces for failure or move forward in small steps. And third, make sure you know when you've failed, or you will never learn."
Make it a goal to cultivate a culture that embraces experimentation, accepts some degree of failure (note: not sloppy work, but the inevitable missteps that come from innovating), and make it a matter of course to take a step back and find the teachable moments.
Darden professor Saras Sarasvathy, an authority on high-performance entrepreneurship, recommends the adaptive approach as well. According to Sarasvathy, an adaptive entrepreneur says, "I don't know where the future is headed. I don't have any resources. But I'll be adaptive, responsive, resilient, persistent, quick and nimble. When things change, I'll change, too, and that's how I'll make it."
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3. Think big-picture
According to HBR authors Grant and Goldhamer, our brains are simply not built for the recent levels of uncertainty. Humans were hunter/gatherers, they write, and the human brain evolved to recognize patterns and build habits, "turning very complex sets of behaviors into something we can do on autopilot." Extreme uncertainty is a shock to our system and can result in decreased motivation and performance.
One of the ways they recommend overcoming that shock and keeping our brains in a good place is to think big-picture. With persistent uncertainty, we have the tendency to go into survival mode and laser-focus on our quotidian tasks; we become consumed with making it through each day. But, as Grant and Goldhamer write, "When we think about the larger meaning or purpose that our actions serve (high-level construal), we're more inspired and motivated and feel greater boosts to self-esteem and well-being."
To combat lower-level thinking, entrepreneurs can implement practices that remind employees of the big picture. For example, at EY, Gold and Goldhamer developed a program in which employees discover and clearly articulate their personal purpose and vision through storytelling. You can get creative and find fun new ways to connect employees with their purpose, which is critical during uncertain times.
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4. Aim for the effectual approach
Finally, another strategy that Sarasvathy recommends is the effectual approach — methods and techniques that move the focus from predicting the future to controlling or changing it, in other words, helping to shape the new normal.
As Sarasvathy puts it, an expert entrepreneur says, "I don't need to predict the future. Instead, I'm going to influence and shape it. In some cases, I will actually create it. But I'll co-create it with partners, customers, suppliers and other self-selected stakeholders. I will work with whoever is willing to work with me."
Shaping the future may seem daunting, but it starts with setting preliminary goals, using the resources you have, focusing on what you can control today, and trusting that new goals will emerge as you progress. For example, when I launched Jotform, with just one employee (me), the goal was to provide an easy-to-use online form builder. In the fifteen years since, our resources have grown and new goals have emerged: to offer various tools for collecting data and making our users' lives easier. But it didn't begin that way, and if it had, it would have been an impossibly steep hill to climb.
In the end, it comes down to embracing the uncertainty and focusing on what's within your control.
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