It’s tempting, at this late stage of the year, to think that things are kind of baked in, and that we have to run the clock out until 2021, or to think that it’s necessary to continue on for the last few months as they have been. The former is a perfectly fair sentiment (2020 has not been our best look) and the latter is reasonable too. But they both reflect a kind of chronological fatalism, this idea that the demarcation line of January 1 is the point of change that matters, and that by this point, the year is rolling downhill towards the conclusion.
Really, that is pretty arbitrary, but we need and love our arbitrary ending points — they help give us a sense of ourselves and what we’re doing. There’s no reason for midnight to mark the end of the day, we just like it because that’s the way it’s always been done. (If you think about it, aren’t sunrise and sunset much more sensible?). The real value of these arbitrary stopping points, though, is that they also give us a means to measure ourselves and our accomplishments. Year-to-date analyses are never as important or as valuabe as a full 365-day cycle, if only because we valorize a full year more highly than we do just what’s happened so far. I mean, it’s right there in the name: year-to-date implies a temporary check in, not something more comprehensive.
But what if that’s a mistake? Why do we need to wait another three months to figure out if what we’re doing works when, if we take a hard look right now, we can see quite clearly if things are moving in the right direction? Take a look at how things are going right now and make a decision: am I doing things the way I want to going forward? Have I made the right choices in my business, or am I just continuing on because that’s what you do in October?
We don’t always think about the calendar year as the way to evaluate when things should be done differently or changes are timely. For most of our youth — and certainly when you have kids — September/October is just about the perfect time for evaluation and change, because it’s the beginning of a new school year. (Honestly, even before I had kids I still felt like the Wednesday after Labor Day was more like New Years than January 1). For students, you get to take on new classes, meet new people, and potentially get a fresh start after the fiasco with the haircut and the shoes last year.
That’s a strategy it makes sense to adopt. Don’t completely throw out your business plan, of course, but reevaluate and make serious changes now, rather than January. Why now? This time of year is actually unique in terms of the datasets that become available and which allow you to make informed decisions. There’s no reason to wait until January to review them. For instance:
- Now that the tax year is (nearly) over for the vast majority of businesses have used up their customary six-month extension for payment, it’s time to look carefully at what you’ve sent the IRS. Use the filing like a post-game evaluation of your performance. What are the key metrics you can identify to spot value, waste, and the need for change? Where did the losses come from, and where did new cost centers emerge?
- We’ve come through the summer retail and consumer acquisition season, but we’re not quite yet to the holidays yet, which means that there is time to think about what lessons you’ve learned from customer spending and purchasing habits through the (very weird) summer and anticipate how you should make changes in the next few months. I’m not talking about wholesale revision to your holiday season plans (not for this year, anyway), but look to the data. How frequently were customers making purchases online after you increased ad spend? What’s the tie to revenue to your new software platforms? How quickly were you able to fulfill orders and respond to queries, and would a new fulfillment SaaS help you? Use the small gap between now and November to beta test some options (again, don’t make massive changes yet) that can help you find more profitable strategies.
- We’re also facing down the high likelihood of a second COVID spike. It’s tempting to assume that we know what we’re doing, but that would be a serious mistake, because most of us have absolutely not had the time nor the energy to conduct the kind of thorough review of our operations and activities in March-April — we’re exhausted and shell-shocked, frankly. But imagine if you had the knowledge you have now back in February, and could shift two or three resource allocation metrics down through the Spring. What would you do? What would you spend less on, and what would you focus more on (besides investing in a hand sanitizer company)? Now recognize that this hypothetical isn’t simply hypothetical: that’s exactly where we are now, in October. You have so much more insight and awareness of what you need to do during a lockdown or spike, and you can make the plans for it now, today.
The point to the examples above is not that they are an exhaustive list — far from it. Instead, we want to emphasize that the real difference-maker is almost always a matter of focus and perspective. What are you focused on? The possibility that January 1 will mean a new start and that things will improve? Or that today, right now, you have what’s important and valuable in front of you, and you need to make the right choice? The data is available already, all that’s necessary is a willingness to examine it closely and make the right call.
How can you do that? The first step is being realistic. What can we actually accomplish in Q4 that will set us up for a better 2021? What are the projects that have borne rewards over the past few months, and which are questionable, at best? How can we refocus on the fruitful, useful, and important things now, rather than waiting until some unspecified future date when we assume that things will have come together? If the latter course sounds foolish and speculative, that’s because it is. Too often, we try to make the data fit our narrative, and not the other way around. What we should do is take a serious look at reality, find the strategies, systems, tools, and ideas that make sense, and adapt them to fit changing circumstances, driven by the data. And we should do it — not tomorrow, not in January — today.