Op-ed: Five business maxims for 2021 and beyond

Gatineau skyline
Gatineau skyline

The human misery, economic destruction and societal shocks of COVID-19 are irreparable, irrevocable, immeasurable and they just keep coming. Let’s face it, 2020 has been a tough year for everyone.

Amidst this brutal backdrop, many hunger for a return to the mythical yesteryear of “normal” – that pre-pandemic time where everything was, well, umm, meh, you know, kinda, oh what’s the word, er, like … normal. Yet, the chaos of COVID and its aftermath that continues to play out before us has rendered “normal” obsolete.

Let’s go further: “Normal” is officially obliterated.

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This should come as no surprise for leaders in business, government, academia or the NGO sector. For years we’ve been told don’t get too comfortable, change is the only constant, skills are out of date in five years or less, and techno whizkids can shred today’s business model over tomorrow’s breakfast.

So for 2021, I proffer this mantra to survive and thrive: Normal is dead; renewal lies ahead; onward we tread.

But just before we ring in the New Year, let’s look in the rear-view mirror for a minute. Harken back to the World Health Organization declaration of a global pandemic on March 11. It may well become one of those “where were you?” questions we will ask ourselves in the years ahead.

For me, I was sitting in my home office winding up several weeks of files and transition documents. I was being restructured out of my senior public affairs, communications and government relations position exactly two weeks later, March 25.

This involuntary career sabbatical over the past nine months has given me plenty (read: way too much) of time to reflect, write and rewrite various resumés, finish what seems like every course on LinkedIn and sit in on several hundred Zoom-Teams-and-WebEx calls and conference sessions. I’ve also ploughed through a few dozen books, journals and scientific medical papers when not binge-watching Netflix, Prime or Apple TV.

The upside of all this is five business maxims that, I believe, will shape people and organizations in 2021, if not beyond.

Maxim #1: Work is where you are

Knowledge workers (artists, writers, programmers, engineers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, scientists, interpreters, policy analysts, social media managers … pick a profession, almost any profession) are the dominant cohort of post-industrial economies.

Our job security resides in the collective grey matter between our ears. The intellectual property of our output can easily and endlessly be replicated and regurgitated by us day after day, over a career of decades, that often spans continents and workplaces. Thirty years after Robert Reich’s seminal book, The Work of Nations, symbolic analysts are everywhere.

The massive exodus from downtown office towers and exurban industrial parks to work-from-home settings courtesy of the coronavirus changes will be the new norm for many organizations. Yes, work may still be a place to go to from time to time, but increasingly, the beach, a coffeeshop, cruiseship on a transatlantic crossing and/or your backyard, basement or roof is where you will (or already do) create, innovate, contribute and add value.

When someone asks where you work, the answer is simple: Where you are.

Maxim #2: Collaboration is king

With all due respect to the fans of content is king, your time has come and likely gone. Sure content still matters, but content is continually shaped, eternally evolves and is often discarded in the process of creative destruction across so many fields from media to science to manufacturing and almost everything in between. Meanwhile, collaboration (which is edging out competition in many ways) took centre stage in 2020.

Consider the unprecedented sharing of COVID-19 information from sequencing the virus to healthcare professionals sharing best practices to global pharma giants and academic institutions working together. It’s fascinating to think that information that saved a factory worker in Wuhan one morning was posted online and in turn, helped a grandmother in Milan a day later. Then, doctors in Houston tweaked the drug cocktail used in China and Italy later that same week to save a bus driver in his mid-30s.

In many countries, elected representatives across the proverbial aisle worked together to create and improve economic and wage subsidy programs. In communities across the world, restauranteurs, retailers and manufacturers co-operated and established new models of locally sourced materials as their traditional supply chains were disrupted by border closures and country lockdowns. And charitable organizations worked together on joint virtual events to raise money to provide necessary services for their clientele.

For the last decade, consumers have been driving the sharing economy. 2020 is the year that many organizations learned that collaboration is king and the ultimate competitive advantage.

Maxim #3: Business is business (labels are irrelevant)

As government lockdowns were imposed, then relaxed, then tightened again, business owners were (and remain) frustrated by the inconsistency and idiocy of some local government and public health dictates,

Big-box retail can stay open but the shoe store a block away can’t? Construction is an essential service in one place but not another?


We’ve all seen the Facebook posts or local TV and radio spots urging us to shop local and support small business because lockdowns unfairly favour the global giants like Walmart, Costco, Best Buy and Home Depot.

I love and support nearby businesses like Sylvie’s hair salon/barbershop, Vito and Victor’s family-run Italian restaurant, Ray’s amazing Lebanese food, Doug’s French Bistro and Bar, and Sean’s hardware store, to name just a few.

They’re run by great people (some even employed my son).

They took risks, bet it all, and built their businesses.

They generously give back to the community each year with food bank donations, gift cards for silent auctions, fundraising drives and sponsorship of local sports teams and groups.

But big-box chains give back too. And they employ dozens, if not hundreds, of neighbours and friends. Yet, unlike the nearby businesses, these larger entities often did not qualify for the alphabet soup of business benefit, tax support and rent relief programs offered by federal, state/provincial and local governments.

Global giants, national chains and entrepreneurial enterprises are all part of our commercial and industrial ecosystem. Employing five people, 500 or 500,000 adds value to the economy and gives people the dignity of work.

Labelling it small or big, corporate or local, is irrelevant and only helps to sow division that governments and anti-capitalists alike are all too happy to exploit (but this is a column for another day).

Maxim #4: Speed = survival = success (it’s now or never)

It’s 2020 and everything is faster: our computers, our iPhones, traffic on the highway, delivery from your favourite store on Main Street or your latest order from Amazon.

Ottawa traffic at night

Consider how vaccine makers shattered the paradigm of the decade-long journey from concept to clinical trials to manufacturing to distribution and mass vaccination; it’s now 12 to 18 months.

By the same token, governments reduced their age-old process of a white paper to public consultation to program design to implementation of new initiatives from years to mere months.

Stoic (if not Luddite-like) main street businesses took the one- to three-month process of web design, product photography, back-end e-commerce setup and delivery arrangements (local or global) and condensed it to five or 10 days, max, to get online and change their business model.

The common thread across these examples is the urgency of now, because if stuff didn’t happen in the now, it was never ever going to happen. As customers and citizens, we no longer accept or tolerate such delays.

Pedantic planning and methodical project management will be consigned to the dustbin of history. New standards have been set in project scoping, design, raw materials sourcing, supply chain redundancy and parallel manufacturing processes. As a result, project execution across so many industries has broken the warp speed barrier and it’s only going to get faster.

Indeed, speed = survival = success.

Maxim #5: Strategic planning is out, scenario planning is in

Before every MBA grad, business-guru-turned-author and global consulting firm questions my sanity, let me explain. Strategy still rules and is critical for advancing a business, public policy or charitable drive.

However, COVD-19 has taught everyone that a strategic plan (not to mention a business continuity plan) is a worthless document or binder if it is not adaptable or as flexible as Gumby.

As we learned more from science about the virus, public health dictates and advice evolved, and government programs were over or undersubscribed, and communities were asymmetrically impacted, strategic plans were shelved and scenario planning became the norm.

“Don’t bring me one solution, let’s produce five scenarios” was the refrain from leaders across many organizations and sectors. Situation X demanded a response in the form of Scenario Y, but the evolving environment meant that Y could be quickly discarded for Scenario Z, and Scenario AB-2.18 or Scenario-supercalifragilisticexpialidocious would need to be deployed.

To reiterate, strategic objectives are, and remain, critical for organizational success so disciples of Drucker, Mintzberg and Porter can rest easy. However, strategic planning is out and is as dated as a fax machine.

Scenario planning is in. And this is especially true in our work-is-where-you-are, collaboration-is-king, business-is-business, and speed = survival = success world.

The ongoing global health emergency and consequent global economic morass has birthed (or cemented) these five business maxims: embrace them, live them and please use them to make better decisions in business, government, the NGO sector … and in life.

Walter Robinson is a public affairs executive who has held national leadership positions in the private, public and NGO sectors with a concentration in life sciences.

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