Strategies for thriving in unsettled times

It feels like the term “unprecedented” is the frontrunner for the most overused term in our public discourse over the last several years, but it is certainly an apt description for the operational challenges in the current business landscape.

Supply chain issues abound, employees are difficult to find and market demand is volatile. COVID restrictions add a level of complexity in execution of project deliverables and uncertainty in business planning. As a technical services organization with a materials laboratory, one of our enduring survival strategies for the last 35-plus years has been diversification in industries served and the technical capabilities of a multidisciplinary scientific staff. Our agility as small business allows us to pivot quickly to capture opportunities that some other firms can’t or won’t.

Navigating this business environment requires much of the same attitude responsible for our survival: quiet confidence in our ability, tempered with humility to recognize our limitations and others’ strengths. Collaboration is at the core of what we do, who we are and how we are built because our greatest successes come when collegiality is the culture — internally and with clients.

The spectrum of reactions to the (con)strained market environment includes shades of fierce competition for market share by finding disruptive solutions to alleviate supply chain issues to meet demand. For the services industry, the labor shortage gives businesses limited options to capture opportunity through traditional hiring. Business alliances — informal or contractual, temporary or longer term — represent a different approach to the same problem.

We have worked on some of the highest-profile cases over the years by partnering with firms that fill our skill gaps, and vice versa. It has occasionally led to some unlikely alliances with companies that might otherwise be considered competitors. While some engagements were more successful business-wise than others, this approach has merit, and taking it allows companies to learning how to be better.

One example of a “friendly competitor” involves mutual referrals for services we can’t provide or tests we can’t perform. This allows both companies to be responsive to their respective customers without the capital investment (and associated risk) to offer new services with demand of unknown intensity or duration. The success of this interaction will have to be evaluated on an ongoing basis, but the ongoing interactions continue to be positive with potential for increased collaboration on future projects.

This concept is not new. Industry’s professional societies were founded on the premise that sharing of best practices helps keep industry healthy and vibrant. Given the strain on staff and other resources experienced by many companies in our region and across the country, a fresh-eyed look at your market competition from a different perspective may be timely.

Not everyone will be open to this; there may be (healthy) skepticism about motivations, or rivalry that runs too deep. But even if you have unsuccessfully tried this before, remember that our world has gone through extraordinary disruption. All of us have experienced some form of isolation throughout the pandemic, and perhaps there is higher potential for openness to new business relationships as we emerge to our next “new normal.” Formation of a successful alliance requires a balance of confidence in the value your company brings, tempered with humility to recognize that you can’t do everything and can’t supply everything to everyone … combined with a collaborator who shares that same attitude. They might not be as rare as you think.

Matthew J. Perricone, Ph.D. is principal investigator and technical consulting group manager at RJ Lee Group