It’s a universal truth, and a frightening one, that your business does not exist in a vacuum. Whatever industry you work in, there’s a constellation of forces that can impact your company in small and large ways. Some of these forces are under your control, but many or not. Preparing for those internal factors can be challenging enough as it is, but it’s nothing compared to preparing for the external.

Internal forces include staffing, management structure, and image, all of which are important, but malleable. External forces, on the other hand, can be almost anything. While many are predictable, others can be completely unforeseen in spite of your best efforts.

Leaders are responsible for preparing their company, not only for internal forces at work, but for those scary, external possibilities. Without adequate preparation, anything is possible — and not in a good way. Here’s how to keep your business tuned into external possibilities, both foreseen and unforeseen.

1. Follow tech innovation

Historically speaking, technological innovation has been one of the most disruptive forces of all time. From the creation of the wheel, to electricity, to the Internet, innovation is happening all the time at various levels, making its mark on the world as it grows.

On my recent podcast appearance for Georgia Business Radio, one thing I touched upon was self-driving cars as an external force that our industry needs to be preparing for. Once cars drive themselves, accidents will significantly decrease and new materials such as carbon fiber may reduce the amount of steel used in production. This may never happen, but if it does we will have significant excess capacity of steel produced in the US. There are many threats to our industry and disruptors hiding around the corner.  I do not know what they will be, but I do know that if we are not trying to uncover and prepare for them, we will become irrelevant.

It is also a must to be exploring new technologies to understand how they can improve our processes, making us more efficient. In this exploration we can also discover what they might be able to do for our customers in manufacturing. Steel has typically been an antiquated industry with the majority of its innovation taking place at the steel mill identifying new chemistries and products. I challenge our industry to innovate throughout. There are newer and better ways of doing what we do that will impact both our companies and our customers’ bottom lines. We do not need to implement new technologies for the sake of being the most advanced; rather, we must identify what is relevant and target our focus there.  

2. Consider policy impact

What states and countries do you do business in, and how does the law impact your business? Often, companies deal with lending conditions and regulations stipulated by the government on a local, statewide, or international level. Know these laws, know your politicians, and understand who and what is good for your company or isn’t.

If there’s an election on the brink, be prepared to deal with the outcome either way. Preparing internally for the potential policy outcome will ensure that you’re able to take into stride any changes that come.

For example, in our industry imports and trade cases have a significant impact on our market.  Last year the domestic mills filed trade cases to keep foreign steel from particular countries out of the US and have succeeded. As of this past week, they are filing against an additional country. We must be asking, how does this affect us and how does it affect our customers?  If the US mills become too aggressive, will manufacturers threaten to offshore their facilities? How does that impact the US and our economy? What will the government do to balance these competing interests? These political decisions affect our industry greatly and we must prepare for what decisions are made and how the industry reacts to them.

3. Keep your eyes on the competition

We all know that competition is inevitable in the free market, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t work to stay ahead. Monitoring and assessing competitors can help prepare you for what lies ahead in your industry. You know what you’d like to accomplish next — chances are they have similar intentions.

Try to anticipate your competition’s moves, and set up several possible scenarios in which you’re at least 10 steps further than your competition’s five. But you should also be prepared for your competitors to beat you sometimes. Plan on how to approach this if and when it happens.

There are lots of great tools to follow your competition.  As the world is more transparent via the Internet and social media, you should take the time to follow your competitors. See how they market themselves to your customers. What seems to be working for them, and where are they missing the mark? Since our customers want to easily find information up front, everyone is putting some version of our company and our goals into public space that can be easily found. Take advantage of this!

4. Don’t make assumptions

It’s easy rest on assumptions and get comfortable with a “business as usual” mindset. Routine and comfort are both important in a working environment, but in the big-picture sense it can be damaging to rest on our laurels. Instead, be forever inquisitive. If your entire team does not focus on individual and company-wide improvements and constantly seek to integrate external best practices into the way you work, you are behind. It takes a constant effort from your entire team to continuously evolve as an organization and stay relevant. Empower your team to develop. Make it a priority. Offer opportunities for them to network and interact with others outside your organization and your industry. The benefits will amaze you.

5. Work on the business, not just in it

At Pacesetter, it is important for us to stay ahead of the curve at all times. This means being proactive on internal measures as well as external, and preparing from the inside out. By creating a culture that prizes innovation, we have a structure that prioritizes advancement and keeps us moving forward at all times.  

This is a priority, and stated a one of our fundamental behaviors of Pacesetter Associates. It is a part of The Pacesetter Way! Like I noted above, it’s about prioritizing advancement and making time in the week to work on the business versus solely in the business. If all you do is firefight in the day to day, you will live in the whirlwind and stay stuck. When you calendar time in the week to create that focus, you have the opportunity to look into the future, scenario plan and strategize on how to turn the challenges that are coming into great opportunities for success.

You don’t have to be a fortune teller to prepare for the future. You just have to be organized, smart, and have your foot on the ignition whether you know where the road leads or not.