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How to Prepare for an Unexpected, Unwanted and Unwelcome Business Setback

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Like most entrepreneurs, I’m dependent on both computer and human support. But sometimes that support can fail — big time.

Over the last 10 weeks, I’ve taken significant hits in both of these areas, despite strong efforts at advance planning.

The business and I survived, but it has been 10 weeks, and counting, of distraction. Of course, I’m not alone: Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Hengchen Dai of the Anderson School of Management at UCLA said that, “While fresh starts are often thought to be motivating, they can be a double-edged sword…

“[Particularly] for employees with recent strong performance, resets can be demotivating and costly, even if the decrease in motivation takes subtle forms, such as switching projects,” he wrote.

In that light, consider the lessons I personally learned about how to reduce future risk.

Cross-train your employees and have backup support in place.

For almost eight years, I relied on an assistant who worked in my office to help run my coaching and consulting practice. A couple of months ago, I added a virtual assistant (VA) as a backup, should my in-office assistant schedule a vacation or come down with the flu.

Hiring the VA was a good move, because shortly after, my in-office assistant stopped working with little advance notice, due to personal circumstances. Having the VA in place, in fact, was critical, because within roughly six weeks, she had taken over many of my previous assistant’s tasks, including social media and publishing.

The lesson? The VA wasn’t an exact one-for-one replacement for her predecessor, but because I had already lined up her help, plus a great outside bookkeeper who could pick up more financial administration duties, my business overall was able to adapt.

Don’t put off replacing your technology infrastructure.

A second lesson I learned stemmed from the mistake I made of not upgrading my tech infrastructure. Just as things started to approach a new normal following my assistant’s departure, our five-year-old office system housing all client work, talks and IP development — all of which dated back 15 years — crashed.

According to a white paper by TechAisle, PC-based systems should be replaced every four years to avoid escalating support and maintenance costs.

On the good side, everything had already been backed up to the cloud and an external hard drive. But the first set-up of the new hard drive crashed too, and almost two weeks elapsed before everything was working again with all data fully restored.

The lesson? Frequent upgrades and tech replacement can help stave off problems and interruptions — and I certainly won’t let my equipment outlive its usefulness ever again.

Update operating documentation regularly.

If your documentation isn’t current with the way you’re working today, anyone else who uses it will get things wrong. You can choose to use checklists, instruction manuals — or a pile of sticky notes, for that matter; just make sure you write up every critical process for your business; then see to it that multiple people know where that write-up is.

In an interview with HR Daily Advisor, Ari Bixhorn, vice president of marketing, at Panopto, pointed out that, “On average, 42 percent of the skills and expertise required to capably perform in a given position will be known only by the person currently in that position.” And that’s obviously a problem: In an organization run by one of my own clients, a crucial director left; and it turned out that this man had basically been running everything “out of his head.” His replacement had to rebuild the director’s practices and procedures virtually from scratch.

The lesson? Make sure you document procedures; then share them.

Reevaluate which responsibilities you want to keep or give away.

Losing staff offers you the opportunity to assess which tasks and responsibilities only you can do, and which you should delegate or outsource to ensure your focus is on where you’re most needed.

In the wake of my assistant’s departure, I’ve been re-evaluating my workflow to look for new efficiencies, and I advise my consulting clients to do the same. For example, I work with an organization that lost a key staffer, and the president told me she found she had to do a significant amount of that person’s work herself. As part of revising that position’s job description, the president recognized that she needed someone with deeper experience than her former employee had had. Reason: She didn’t want to have to hold the hand of the next person to hold that job.

The lesson? When someone leaves your employ, take a hard look at that job’s responsibilities before you refill it.

Strengthen supplier relationships.

Be respectful and appreciative of your suppliers, because if and when a business crisis occurs, you’ll be counting on those suppliers to rise to the occasion.

Stay in touch often enough to know if the people you’ve worked with in the past are still available for you to draw upon. Express gratitude, even for small things. People appreciate being recognized for what they do. When my business problems hit, it was reassuring to see how both my outside bookkeeper and tech support company sprang into action.

The lesson? Keep outside relationships strong.

Don’t rely just on outsiders, though.

Your vendors and outside suppliers can be helpful, but you’re still the final judge of what your business needs. Prepare your own operating instructions and notes about the work they’ve done for you as reference material for later; do this the same way you might give a new doctor a list of your health conditions and current medications.

Don’t take the chance that your outside supplier might neglect to refer to your history or your past intent when taking action on your behalf.

Losing my longtime assistant was a blow, and I realized too late that I hadn’t been fully prepared for that possibility. Now, I’m working to gain some strategic value from the unanticipated re-set in my business.

Over the next couple of months, I plan to clean out obsolete software and processes, ditch unneeded files and create manuals for all important work functions. Things do go wrong now and then — sometimes very wrong. But the lesson I’ve learned is, if you’re pragmatic and prepare yourself for a potential hit, you’ll be able to roll with the punches and come out stronger in the end.

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