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Caroline Williams: Learning the lessons of an unpredictable 2016

PUBLISHED: 18:20 07 December 2016 | UPDATED: 18:24 07 December 2016

Caroline Williams Norfolk Chamber of Commerce chief executive. 
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Caroline Williams Norfolk Chamber of Commerce chief executive. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2016

How can businesses learn to expect the unexpected?

Don’t panic!

I’m not about to go back over the result, or implications, of the recent election result in the USA, nor am I going to take you back to Brexit, nor the recent regional devolution vote.

But all these topics are uppermost in my mind as I write this column.

Let me leave aside the politics. Your views on Trump and Clinton, Leave or Remain, or devolution ‘for’ or ‘against’ are not the issues here.

It’s fair to say that even passionate advocates of the winning sides in the two former of these campaigns were surprised at the outcomes.

The losers were, of course, shattered.

More importantly, in a way, the pollsters and media pundits were surprised.

To put it bluntly, they - the experts - were just plain wrong.

And that’s perhaps one of the most important lessons businesses can learn from recent events.

The fact is that, sometimes, despite all the planning, all the research, all the soundings you take from your market, things do not go as you thought they would.

The unexpected happens.

In theory, with our ever more sophisticated techniques of analysis and forecasting, the unexpected should happen less and less.

And yet, within the same year, two massive events have delivered it.

There’s another point that’s directly related to both Brexit and the US election. Both results have revealed a strong suspicion - whether it’s justified or not remains to be seen – that the UK government, who sort of lost, and the Trump team, who won, don’t have a clear plan for what to do next.

And that’s what’s making people lack confidence about the future.

So, if your business plan swerves off course because the unexpected happens and you do not take action, you’re going to lose the confidence of staff, customers and shareholders - which is a recipe for disaster at any time, let alone in these unpredictable days.

There’s no easy answer to that – but what I do have is the knowledge gained from 2016, that having a plan is necessary.

Having an outline, at least, for what you do in the event of the totally unexpected is absolutely essential.

How do you write such an emergency plan? It might be a good idea to look at your business strategy, then turn it on its head and set down the tactics you’d employ in those circumstances.

Or, look at your list of goals, and then write the plan for how you would operate if none of them came to fruition.

Interestingly, of course you might just find that such an exercise produces some lateral and innovative thinking that can be fed into your planning anyway.

The year 2016 has certainly thrown up some unexpected twists and turns, and they should make us think.

Consider this piece of wisdom: “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.”

That was Oscar Wilde - in the 19th century.

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