Drowning Swimmer - Business Risk Metaphor

Joe’s Swim

Joe is a really strong swimmer. Every day during the summer he swims out and around a small island in the lake near his home. The total swim is about 50 lengths of a standard pool. Joe has been doing this swim regularly for over 8 years.

As Joe arrives he notices a few other swimmers out on the small lake. Not as many as on the weekend but this is a popular spot for swimmers as boats are prohibited.

Today Joe notices that his right leg is a little stiff from the landscaping work he did out in his yard yesterday. He’s had this type of thing before and it always works itself out during the first part of the swim. So he plunges into the water and starts his swim.

At first, the leg does seem to be improving a bit as the blood starts flowing. But then about half way out to the island it starts to feel stiff again. Since Joe is a strong swimmer and used to dealing with a little discomfort he keeps going.

As he start to round the island, the pain in his leg gets a worse. But he is already half way. So instead of getting out on the island and risk cooling down and stiffening up further, he decides to keep going. He is already committed to completing the swim; all in.

About half way back, midway between the island and the beach, his leg cramps up. Since he is confident in his abilities, he figures he will just slow down a bit and rest it up. He notices another swimmer heading out to the island about 25 yards away. Not wanting to look foolish he keeps quiet and the other swimmer keeps going.

Then Joe’s leg cramps up really bad. Charlie horse spasms rack his leg. He manages to keep his head above water with just his arms and the one good leg. But now with the spasms he isn’t really able to move forward. His breathing becomes a little more labored as a little panic sets in.

Then his other leg cramps up a bit. Things are not looking good and he yells for help. But help is not close and the panic accelerating. Joe doesn’t want to drown.

Then he gets his first mouthful of water as his head briefly drops below the surface and starts coughing. All reason leaves as full panic sets in and he starts thrashing his arms and yelling while getting the occasional mouthful of water; ignoring all training and experience.

Another swimmer arrives and tries to help Joe. Joe grabs onto the swimmer and tries to use the other swimmer to keep above the water forcing the other swimmer below the surface. Now two people are in danger of drowning.

Early Warning Signals

Joe had a number of earlier choices or decision points during the swim:

  • Checkpoint 1: Go for the swim despite a stiff leg.
  • Checkpoint 2: Keep going at the midpoint to the island even though the leg was getting stiff again.
  • Checkpoint 3: He didn’t stop at the island because of over confidence and pride; and because he had already invested in the swim and felt compelled to complete it.
  • Checkpoint 4: He didn’t seek help from the other swimmer or any others soon enough.

After that, all Joe could do was react to what was happening to him. Once full blown panic set in, all ability to make good decisions was lost and he risked everything and even endangered others.

He didn’t have any plans to deal with things that might go wrong. Complacency had set in.

Your Business

This is not unlike when things go wrong in business.

You make a bad hire and keep them far too long despite small warning signs. You ignore changes in outside factors hoping that things will fix themselves. You plan and make decisions on the fly based on your gut.

You fail to ask for help or plan for alternatives until it becomes too late.

Closer to home here in Alberta, the price of oil has been dropping. Nobody knows how long it will last. We are all hoping it will improve before we are forced to take drastic action.

Most businesses will wait a bit too long. At best waiting will cost them a lot of money and risk the business.

At worst they have waited too long and avoided making decisions until it is too late; taking the business down with it. In some cases when one business goes down, a chain reaction occurs and other related businesses are also at risk up or down the supply chain.

Plant Your Tree Today

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is now.

There are 5 things you need to do now to prepare for an uncertain future.

#1: Define Your Checkpoints

Don’t leave decisions to gut feeling or last minute reaction. Emotions including false optimism will cloud those decisions. Plan out how far you can go before you need to cut your risk. When those triggers or warnings are met, follow through on the plan. Understand the additional risk if you choose not implement the plan. Checkpoints may not be all or nothing. They can be laddered so that you do X if the first trigger is met and Y if the second trigger is met.

#2: Define Your Contingency Plans

If your business is dependent on a big client, in a cyclical industry, or there are other big risks; you need to plan out what your contingencies are if something goes wrong. This can be a high level plan. Then when you get close to that decision point, you are not facing a blank list of options which makes it harder to make a good decision. You can flesh out the plan and execute it as required nearer the actual event.

#3: Get More Efficient In Good Times

When times are good, inefficiencies set in. Keeping the organization lean just doesn’t seem as important as growing the business or taking advantage of opportunities. You hire and keep underperforming employees, costs are just a little too high, you let quality drop a little or you don’t work as much on relationships.

Working on the business is something you need to do during good times so you can weather the bad and thrive in the good.

#4: Get the Help You Need

Getting coaches, consultants, advisors or additional team members on board takes time. It takes a while to find them and it takes a while for the impact to be felt. Working on the business may be something you just don’t have the expertise or time to do right. If you wait too long the help may arrive but it may be too late to save you.

#5: Commit to Making the Tough Decisions

It is tough to make decisions that impact other people or seem like you are quitting. But if you don’t keep the business alive it can’t come back to succeed in the future. So you need to commit now to making the decisions that need to be made. You may guess wrong and have to adjust course, but waiting until it is too late is much worse. Once the panic sets in, decisions become reactionary and more difficult.

Be Prepared For the Worst and the Best

These are the things you need to do today to prepare for the uncertain future. If you do you will be more prepared than over 80% of businesses and much more likely to come out strong.

However, there is one more thing you should also prepare for. What if things go the other way? What if the problems become opportunities?

Working on the business should help there too.