Strengthen Your Company’s Competitive Position in 2020: 20 Things to Do in Q1

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A new decade is dawning, and that means one thing for your company: a fresh start.

Up to a point, at least. It’s impossible to make a total break with the past with so much in motion. Bringing your company to a dead stop, then flooring it in the opposite direction, usually isn’t a wise business move.

Nevertheless, the start of a new decade is as good a time as any to take stock of your company’s competitive footing. On what measures, if any, is your team leading the way? Where is it falling short? And where is it absolutely, positively getting crushed by the competition?

Painful as they may be to hear, the answers to these questions matter. You can’t very well turn over a new leaf if you’re still parachuting into the forest.

It’s time to cast a critical eye over every nook and cranny of your organization, and to address its competitive deficiencies in a systemic, sustainable way. Too much is riding on your company’s success — your customers’ trust, your vendors’ bottom lines, your employees’ livelihoods (and your own) — to be content with half-measures.

Without further ado, let’s dive into 20 things you can do (or begin to do) in the first quarter of 2020 that will reinforce your company’s competitive position and put it on sounder footing to succeed through 2020 and beyond. If you’re already taking care of something on this list, more power to you: cross it off and move on to the next.

1. Invest in a Comprehensive Data Backup Solution

Begin with a layup. Your organization faces a dizzying array of digital security threats, any one of which could prove fatal. Forget shoring up your competitive position. After a catastrophic attack, you may not have a competitive position.

Whatever the standouts on your organization’s threat matrix — ransomware, DDoS attacks, zero-day exploits, one of those global worm events that leaves collateral damage strewn about the four corners of the globe — it deserves the protection that only a comprehensive data backup solution can provide.

Think of this protection as an insurance policy. While you can hope that you never need to use it, you’ll be grateful that it’s there if and when you do — and you most likely can’t afford the consequences if it’s not.

2. Start Thinking Beyond the (Single) Bottom Line

You won’t complete this initiative in the first quarter. You probably won’t get it done in 2020. But it could be the single most important thing you can start to do this year to distinguish your organization from its competitors while capturing socially conscious consumers’ ever-growing purchasing power.

What is it? The triple bottom line — a radical, modern take on boring old double-entry bookkeeping. In addition to profit, the “original” bottom line, the triple bottom line accounts for your company’s impact on people and the planet. The more humane and eco-friendly your business practices and supply chain, the stronger your triple bottom line.

Sometime in the not too distant future, the triple bottom line will be table stakes in many industries. Why wouldn’t you want to arrive there ahead of your competitors?

3. Institute a Version of the 80/20 Rule

Although its impact has frequently been exaggerated, Google’s famed 80/20 rule really did spark a creative revolution within that company’s famously talented workforce. The 80/20 rule permitted select employees to use up to 20% of their valued time for projects not directly related to their role’s remit — basically, to pursue their passion on company time. Countless innovations, some iterative and others revolutionary, flowered forth.

Allowing your employees to take one day out of five to do whatever they want may strike you as excessive. Fine. What about a 90/10 rule: one half-day per week devoted to side projects? It goes without saying that you’ll have ownership — or, at the very least, right of first refusal — over any potential value created in the offing.

4. Find Better Ways to Measure Customer Satisfaction

Perhaps one of your 80/20 or 90/10 sessions will produce a great leap forward in your ability to measure customer satisfaction. More likely, you’ll spend the first few months of 2020 testing a host of iterative improvements, keeping those that appear to work and junking those that produce more noise than signal. One thing to keep in mind: the metrics that work even for peer companies may not work for your organization, so be not afraid to think outside the box.

5. Update Your Employee Handbook

Can you recite a laundry list of things to include in your employee handbook? No? Then read the linked article before reading on.

— With that out of the way, don’t delay another month. Have your HR department rewrite your employee handbook from start to finish, incorporating industry-specific best practices and general sector guidelines (these vary in white- and blue-collar settings, for instance). Attention spans being what they are these days, add an executive summary that stretches no more than four pages and includes every key point a rank-and-file employee should be expected to know about working for your organization.

6. Evaluate Every Vendor Relationship — Without Exception

Yes, that includes the accountant brought on by your dear departed grandfather all those decades ago. Without exception.

Here’s the thing: Chances are very good that every single one of your vendors has a superior competitor that, given half the chance, would beg for your business. The problem is, you don’t know who or where they are, and vice versa. And it’s not like you have the bandwidth to run a dozen or more RFPs in parallel, not with all those other bills coming due.

That said: It doesn’t hurt to see what’s out there. Before you begin searching for replacements in earnest, take a critical eye to each vendor relationship, asking whether the value they add justifies what you’re paying them — or whether you can make do with less.

7. Sever Ties With Vendors That Leave You Vulnerable to Compromise

The results of your company-wide vendor evaluation promise bad news for a few of your organization’s longtime partners, it’s fair to wager.

Before you cut loose vendors that fail to deliver the marginal value you expect from your partners, you should take a step that’s even more important to your organization’s long-term health: immediately severing ties with vendors whose IT security policies don’t meet your own company’s standards. Some of the worst corporate data breaches in history vectored through insecure vendor IT systems, and you have no excuse for leaving yourself open to such compromise.

8. Devise or Update Your Organization’s Crisis Management Plan

Does your company have a crisis management plan? What about a crisis communication plan?

It needs both. In both cases, these plans need to be versatile enough to accommodate a range of likely crisis scenarios and scalable enough to apply to an organization twice the present size of yours (because it may get there before you have the opportunity to update your crisis plans again).

Even if your company has an internal marketing or PR team, consider retaining an outside crisis communications expert. This is a rare art, and there’s no shame in admitting you’re not equipped to pull it off.

9. Review and Update Role Descriptions

Do your company’s role descriptions make sense in 2020? Given rapid advances in technologies and ever-changing workflows, chances are very good that some such descriptions come off as quaint — or, worse, outright inaccurate.

This is especially likely to be the case with positions held by longtime roleplayers and those promoted from within their own departments. If you haven’t posted a particular job in 20 years, well, it’s time to make like you are, regardless of the performance of the person currently installed.

10. Make Titles Commensurate With Duties

One outcome of your company-wide role review could be a change in how you assign employee titles. Giving everyone a management-lite title is a fool’s errand, but it’s important that your titles acknowledge employees’ actual duties, especially with regards to domains over which they have ownership.

11. Cut Out Unserious Fringe Perks

Get rid of your office’s foosball table. Just…get rid of it.

Same goes for the beer taps in your main kitchen. Those things are gross, and the office fridge does just fine to keep adult beverage cans chilled.

Bottom line: Don’t infantilize your employees. They’re not in college anymore.

12. Invest in Benefits Your Employees Actually Value

Swap those unserious fringe perks for benefits your employees actually value: unlimited paid time off, flexible work schedules, health savings accounts, generous 401(k) matching, health insurance that doesn’t cost a fortune to use, and so on. Such benefits greatly aid retention, which in turn boosts your company’s competitive position.

13. Ask Every Department Head to Update Their Strategic Plans

It’s the least they can do to start the new decade. Their counterparts at your top competitors are certainly thinking two steps ahead.

14. Junk Underperforming Products and Services

As you’re about to do with your vendors, subject your company’s entire menu of products and services to a brutally honest review. Get rid of those that aren’t popular or profitable (other than loss leaders that bring in more revenue than they cost).

15. Ditch Underperforming Markets and Segments

Yeah, this will cause some pain. That’s business. Psychologically, it’s better to begin the decade with a rash of layoffs than to change course 18 months in.

16. Get Serious About Content Marketing

Your company blog won’t cut it, at least not to start. No one reads that thing. Even as you invest in a long-term campaign to drive more traffic to your blog, leverage high-visibility platforms like LinkedIn, YouTube, and Medium to capture readers and viewers right out of the gate. As you build credibility, your blog will become a more attractive proposition.

17. Position Key Employees as Industry Thought Leaders

About that content marketing: Especially when you’re publishing on high-authority third-party sites, choose those bylines carefully. Each key employee should have a distinct knowledge domain that prospective customers and peers instantly associate with him or her.

18. Start an Internal Mentorship Program

Call it intergenerational outreach, if you must. Organizations of a certain size must work hard to bridge gaps between departments and divisions — and between veterans and greenhorns. Pair mentors and mentees outside the chain of command; bosses can mentor direct reports, of course, but that’s apt to muddy the waters in a formal mentorship program.

19. Update Your Workplace Etiquette and Harassment Policies

Times have changed. Codify the values that you strive to uphold as an organization. If said upholding is more difficult than it should be, move on to #20.

20. Invest in Equity and Diversity Training

Diverse teams are more effective, creative, competitive than homogeneous units prone to groupthink. Deep diversity training is a marathon, to be sure, but it’s also the surest way to create a more equitable organization that rewards its most talented rising stars — not only those who most resemble leadership.

Your Loss Is Your Competitors’ Gain

Modern business isn’t exactly a zero-sum game. In growing industries, the share of the revenue pie available to competitors is not fixed — it’s growing, along with sales. The idea is to grow faster than the next company — to expand one’s share of the pie at a faster rate than one’s competitors.

In declining industries, the numbers work differently, but it’s still not accurate to say that competitors in such industries must engage in zero-sum warfare. For example: Hidebound firms are more likely to go out of business in industries with limited opportunities, allowing more nimble competitors to expand their revenue share.

Make no mistake, though: A rising tide does not necessarily lift all boats, not in the cutthroat world in which your organization operates. Your competitors are hungry for any advantage they can get over you and everyone else against whom you compete. They’re waiting for the first sign of a slip-up on your part — no matter how slight.

In other words, you’re on notice. But fret not. You got this. You’re going to read to the end of this paragraph, close your browser tab, and get to work implementing these 20 initiatives right away. Three months from now — not to mention three quarters or three years hence — you might catch yourself remembering this moment as a turning point. Today, you finally made good on your promise to your organization’s stakeholders to be the best leader you can be.

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John is a serial entrepreneur and writer who is passionate about helping small businesses launch and grow. His work has been featured in Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, and Forbes.