“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.”

— Will Durant

“Civilization in its present form hasn’t got long. ”

— James Lovelock

“I do not believe that civilizations have to die because civilization is not an organism. It is a product of wills. ”

— Arnold J. Toynbee

“It is the individual only who is timeless. Societies, cultures, and civilizations – past and present – are often incomprehensible to outsiders, but the individual’s hunger, anxieties, dreams, and preoccupations have remained unchanged through the millennia. ”

— Eric Hoffer

“Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future too. “

— Marcus Aurelius

I read so often these days another article on the “inevitable collapse of the social order” that is presently underway almost everywhere. Our present collapse, or whatever it may be, is regularly compared to any number of other collapses across human history. My favorite is the Fall of the Roman Empire but there are many alternative collapses from which to choose.

This situation seems a bit troubling. If societal and economic collapses have been happening at least forever, and probably longer, why are we still here? Surely one of these would have finally succeeded in doing away with us human critters.

Maybe COVID is the one that will finally do the trick. It seems to be rampant globally and causing all manner of nasty mischief. The situation seems to get worse by the day. Almost everyone is afraid of whatever may be going on.

This does not compute, as they say in robot-ville. If collapses of every kind have been occurring with annoying regularity forever, what is it about us folks that refuses to collapse and disappear in conformity with the latest civilization collapse?

Hey, maybe this is actually some quite good news in the midst of global collapse doom-and-gloom.

Why have we survived through so many collapses?

Last time I counted, there were a really a great many people still going about their lives and businesses as best they can. Don’t they realize that we’re all gonna die – just like we should have but didn’t in our many-collapses past?

Darwin says that only the fittest (which I understand to be the most adaptable) survive. This means that many of you out there today doing your thing are among the fittest. The unfit have long since expired. Just maybe collapses have a valuable evolutionary role in cleaning up things whenever they get especially nasty.

Collapses may in fact be essential and natural societal housecleaners.

Think of the world populated by zillions of mostly “unfit” people. Too horrible to contemplate. Good thing that we who are still here have been selected as being among the fittest. Or maybe we just got lucky. At least so far.

A necessary period of societal and economic housekeeping?

Suppose that our human civilizational machinery has a built-in flushing cycle. Not a happy situation for the unfit or unlucky but good for the surviving unflushed.

Then maybe today’s nastiness is simply a part of yet another flushing cycle in which some unfortunates are going to be flushed. This means that we so-far-unflushed folks need to pay particular attention right now to survival practices.

Fear is necessary and good. It motivates like nothing else. Who is going to make the great efforts needed to survive if not deeply motivated by fear? Well, perhaps a few creative types who may see the current collapse goings-on as being full of opportunity.

This is the way the world works and has always worked

Collapses, broadly defined, have been with us forever. Despite this, we humans as a concept are still here – at least those who are especially adept at surviving whatever comes along. The trick is to figure out a way to be among the survivors.

Ancient Chinese general and philosopher Sun Tzu observed that crisis creates opportunity. In fact, “In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity.” Sort of.

In any case, the main task ahead for most of us is not to try to fix the current mess, assuming that it is fixable, but instead to seek out opportunity that must be hiding somewhere in this colossal mess. Colossal mess, colossal opportunity – right?

The reason why “we” are still here is that our forebears found ways to be among the survivors of their own particular collapse. Our job is to do the same for those who follow us, or perhaps we can be content just to arrange for our own survival and to leave the more distant future to the next graduating class of potential survivors.

Collapse flushes away many weak and failing practices

Collapse routinely tests current practices and ideas and takes away most of the ones that fail. Thinking of the current “collapse”, or whatever it may be, as a valuable test for survival places a very different priority on our next moves.

The real reality, if such a thing exists, is that we need to shift our focus as quickly as possible to opportunity discovery.

Obviously, there are quite a number of businesses that have already figured this out. Survival is typically high on the agenda of business leaders. Many businesses, however, are still clinging tightly to outmoded practices and business models.

The past isn’t coming back, as noted ad nauseum in these posts. What’s replacing the past is some sort of future that seems largely obscure, at least for the moment. The future is likely to be fully apparent only when it becomes the present. Which may be a bit late to do anything about opportunities.

Internal vs. external focus

Many businesses have stepped out in front to adapt or take advantage of the unfolding new world as it unfolds. COVID-driven workplace safety measures are rapidly changing businesses internally but outward-facing responses seem to be moving much more slowly. While businesses seem to focus primarily on changing their internal workings, more agile and creative competitors will be eating their lunches with external, market-focused initiatives.

Huge demand decreases in the retail world mask the reality that people still need lots of stuff, especially the basics. Markets and customer behavior are changing dramatically. A few examples to illustrate:

  • Food stores have shifted quickly to online ordering, pickup, and delivery.
  • Restaurants with little or no inside dining are experimenting with outside dining, online ordering, pickup, and delivery.
The future of restaurants in NYC?
  • Healthcare providers are dealing with a patient base that is reluctant to visit provider facilities and that postpones all but the most urgent treatments. Telehealth is becoming extremely important to locked-down folks.
  • Customers need improved ways to learn about products, an essential service that was formerly handled in-store by sales associates (who are rapidly becoming extinct).
  • Working at home has created huge demand for in-home office systems and equipment, plus great work for builders who can modify homes to accommodate home-based work and school activities.
  • Hygiene and safety products are in high demand.
  • Remote office workers are going to need access to local technical expertise to maintain and adapt their new home workplace infrastructure.
  • Gig workers are exploding as employers lay off great numbers of highly-skilled people.
  • Security systems for businesses and home are likely to grow in importance no matter how things turn out in reality.
  • Customer expectations are evolving rapidly in response to changes in their businesses and needs. Suppliers must stay much closer to customers if they want to retain them.
  • Customer behavior is also changing dramatically. Businesses need to stay close to key customers to be able to spot new needs and opportunities driven by these behavioral changes.
  • Customer engagement is becoming of critical importance. Chatbots using AI are providing in many cases much better customer support than previously provided by actual people.
  • Selling complex products has to be done differently in a low-contact environment.
  • Dealing with routine disruption requires a different way of interacting with customers and suppliers.

Pioneer, leader, or adept follower?

Opportunity discovery comes with some risks. Pioneers strike out into uncharted wildernesses. Thomas Edison comes to mind here. Where he succeeded, many like him have ended up in the dirt full of arrows. Probably not a good business model for most of us who are allergic to arrows.

Leaders have armies to lead so that they can strike out into new areas with some confidence both of survival and of success. They can create special units dedicated to discovery and early exploitation. These may take the form of “skunk works” as noted a while back. The main requirement here is size and resources. Amazon-Walmart-types maybe.

Adept followers may well be the most practical business model for opportunity discovery by the majority. This involves keeping a very close eye on what the leaders in your markets may be up to and then selecting their most promising directions for your business. The key to success here is being able to move quickly once a direction has been chosen.

Waiting for a leader or surviving pioneer to demonstrate the full value and mechanics of an opportunity is likely to be a losing approach. This often ends up with the followers being left mostly to struggle among the competitive laggards.

Bottom line:

Because societal and economic collapses occur with annoying frequency, the only sound approach for a business is to discover opportunity in the debris of the latest alleged collapse. Collapses may well be a natural housekeeping process that creates wonderful conditions for business growth. But this requires that your business manages to be among the survivors. My suggestion is to look outward, not inward, for market and customer changes that develop into opportunities.

Market Mad House, a web publisher with the great tag line “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. — Friedrich Nietzsche”, looks at the great technology survivor IBM as it struggles yet again with its changing markets: “Can IBM Survive?”:

“IBM’s Business is shrinking … Hence, IBM is still a cash-rich company, but it is a cash-rich company plagued by shrinking revenues. IBM’s quarterly revenues fell from $19.161 billion on 30 June 2019 to $18.028 billion on 30 September 2019.”

“Moreover, Stockrow reports IBM’s revenue growth rate has shrank [sic] for four straight quarters. In detail, IBM had a negative revenue growth rate of -2.07% on 30 September 2018, a negative revenue growth rate of -3.46% on 31 December 2019, -4.67%% on 31 March 2019, -4.21% on 30 June 2019, and -3.88% on 30 September 2019.”

IBM itself, despite this somewhat gloomy external prognosis, seems to have some useful ideas about where a major opportunity set may lie today:

Oracle’s NetSuite, a major cloud-based ERP software provider, describes how several businesses are adapting quickly to whatever may be going on out there:

“Alton Lane closed its 12 menswear showrooms due to COVID-19. In early April, the brand launched virtual appointments, turning its one-on-one in-store consultations into video calls to fit customers for a new suit, blazer, dress shirt or pants. Alton Lane has mailed customers tape measures to make ordering online easier and fabric swatches so they can get a true feel for new colors and patterns. The custom clothing brand has seen promising traction with these virtual appointments and about 25% of those who have signed up are new customers.”