Winter Storms and Economic Downturns – Will We Learn from Them?

According to weather experts — and most Americans — the winter of 2013-14 will go down as one of the most challenging in history. Much of the Southeast saw record snowfall levels, the city of Atlanta faced gridlock due to unprecedented ice and snow which caught local and state government officials completely off guard, 15 inches of snow fell overnight in Baltimore, and sub-zero temperatures across the upper Midwest created energy shortages and incredible spikes in the cost of heating fuels. These were a few of the historic weather events that wreaked havoc across the U.S. 

With the arrival of March, people are looking forward to melting snow, warmer weather, and relief from the high energy costs that have in many cases wiped out meager savings for families and encroached on purchases of other basic needs. The question is “Did we learn anything from this winter, and will we do anything differently in the future as a result of the experience, or will we simply celebrate spring and forego an incredible opportunity to change our behavior?”

By now, you may be thinking these weather stories are interesting, but how does this relate to business? What’s the point in recounting the misery of the past three months?

Looking back, the business climate over the past few years has been much like what we saw in our weather patterns this winter — highly unpredictable and dramatically different from anything most of us had previously experienced — affecting more people and businesses in more ways than any previous economic storm. Companies which had successfully survived difficult situations found themselves facing unprecedented challenges as economic “experts” struggled to identify changes in the business climate and forecast the impact of coming events, if not the events themselves. Many businesses could not figure out what to do next, with preparations seemingly impossible in the face of such unpredictability.

Just as drivers in Atlanta were stranded on the roads “trying to get home,” many companies, unprepared for the strength and breadth of the economic downturn, became stuck in the gridlock of falling revenues, declining profits and a limited ability to react without assistance — “just trying to make it.”

The similarity continues as we look forward to a more positive economic outlook with improved markets, increasing sales/revenues and improved profit margins. Will we simply celebrate economic recovery or will we learn from these very difficult economic times, and from our struggles to manage costs and profitability? Will businesses prepare themselves for unpredictability and become more flexible, or will they return to the “comfortable” past? 

 As we learned this winter, there are some things we can’t do on our own. Occasionally we need help “getting out of the ditch.” But what we can do is look back and identify those things we didn’t do well or were unable to do at all, and then find the resources to help us get out of the economic ditches or avoid them altogether as we move into the future. Or maybe we didn’t really learn anything at all. . .

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