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2024 might be a very tough year but that could be great for you

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Fireworks light up Nairobi's night sky over UAP Old Mutual Tower during the New Year’s celebrations on January 1, 2024.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

What kind of 2024 are you expecting to have?

Across the world, the prognosis is grim at best. Economies are ailing; cost of living has sky-rocketed; business failures are looming; debt burdens are onerous. It’s not going to be an easy year to navigate, even for the most fortunate.

But there is something that a tough year can do for you. To understand that, let me tell you about two recent years in my life: 2019 and 2020.

2019 was a great year for my organisation. The services we sold were mature and regarded positively by our clients; the business model was stable; relationships were strong. We were doing well, and proud of it.

2020 also kicked off nicely. The order book was full; there was strong interest by new clients; our confidence was high. That was January, though. You may recall what happened next. We all found ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic, never before experienced; the world went into lockdown; in-person gatherings were cancelled everywhere.

Our order book evaporated. We went into crisis mode, trying simply to navigate the storm and get to the next shore. That did not happen for another two full years.

But here’s the thing: what did we not do in 2019? Innovate! We were set in our ways, rather comfortable in a predictable world. We were simply doing more of the same. And amidst the chaos and uncertainty of 2020, what did we end up doing in spades? Innovate! We pivoted our flagship leadership programme entirely to virtual; we introduced a raft of new products and services; we learned new ways of working and interacting, meaningfully and to great effect.

Why did that happen in 2020 and not 2019? Because one of the truths about innovation is simply this: the comfortable don’t innovate. Innovations tend to come thick and fast when the need for them is huge—not when they are just an interesting pastime.

In my team, for example, we knew very well in the years before 2020 that we needed to develop digital and virtual tools and techniques, but we were doing just fine with the analogue ways. We could never make the time to change things, because we never had the burning need to.

In 2020 we were on fire, so we suddenly had the need—and the time! And so, lo and behold, a procession of rapid-fire learnings took place, which led to new ways of doing things, ways that have become central to our work, even after the pandemic faded.

That’s the thing about tough times. Hidden inside them are sets of opportunities, if only we can be calm enough to see them. Most people do not stay calm, however. They freak out.

Even seasoned chief executives and venerable boards of directors are capable of the crazy freakout, though it is couched in business jargon and minuted in tedious legalese.

These freakouts typically involve sending employees home, slashing all expenditure, degrading the customer experience, and delaying essential investment. Even organisations that have been around for decades—and encountered multiple vicissitudes along the way—end up behaving as though saving the current quarter is all that matters.

A more unfazed eye might notice that the freakout is what most competitors will do—and therein lies the opportunity to take market share, even in tough times. You can take that extra share in two ways: by simply staying in the market as others fade; but more importantly, by not wasting the crisis. It is in tough times that we can do a set of all-new things, and that opportunity should not be squandered.

So if 2024 starts to look uncomfortable for you and your organisation, my advice is just this: stay calm; stay focused on the long term, and use the discomfort to develop new things—new ways of working, and new products that suit the new circumstances. The burning platform you’re on could help you do this at speed.

There’s a catch, though, and it’s a big one. For rapid-fire innovation to happen, you have to have the necessary talent to work with—and the relationships to make the process rich and fruitful. I did not do all that innovating in 2020 by myself; I had an excellent team available. Ideas flew, they were debated, they were backed or dumped, and they were trialled and piloted. That took a team of talents—one that was engaged with the work, and one that cared about the result.

And that’s the second lesson about innovation: the bored and disengaged also don’t innovate. So if you have been nurturing transactional, stand-offish relationships in your workplace, a crisis may be of no use to you. Quite the opposite; you may find that the hidden cracks come rapidly to the surface. A crisis is in fact far worse when key relationships are weak.

And so 2024, even if uncomfortable, could be a breakout year for you, provided you take a calm look at new possibilities. On the other hand, if you’ve been sitting atop a messy pile of weak and fake relationships, it could become very uncomfortable indeed.