Learning From the Past to Forge a Post-COVID Future

Learning From the Past to Forge a Post-COVID Future

As a business owner, I’m sure you agree that the state of the world right now is something else. With Australia and most of the world in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, managing a business, whether product or service-based, has never been more challenging.

In between lockdowns, changing restrictions, economic uncertainty and plunging consumer confidence, there doesn’t seem to be much light at the end of the tunnel or even an end in sight. 2020 has been a hard year, a year that doesn’t really have an equal.

However, if you look back over history, this year does have precedent.

In addition to being a business owner, I also happen to be a historian. Looking back over the past and learning lessons from history is an invaluable way to map the future. This skill set has served me well over the years, helping my own business thrive as well as supporting other business owners with their marketing needs.

In times like this, it’s vital that we believe there is a way forward out of this. We need to know that we’ve recovered from crises like this before and we need to understand how we did it. Without this knowledge or understanding, we risk losing our way and risk losing everything we’ve worked so hard for in our business.


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Examples Of Crisis And Recovery

1918-1919 Spanish Flu

Just over a century ago, the world experienced an even more devastating pandemic, the Spanish Flu. It emerged in the last year of the Great War and then spread across the globe following the end of World War I. Three waves of the virus killed at least 50 million people worldwide, including the young and healthy.

During those years, communities faced very similar challenges to those we face today – quarantine, lockdown, social distancing and shutdowns. The economy was hit, schools were shut and life was turned upside down for millions around the globe.

However, within a few years, there was recovery. The “roaring twenties” saw technological advancement, growing wealth and a peak in confidence after years of war, virus and heartache. Those who survived the pandemic would hardly have believed recovery could come so swiftly or so surely in the dark days of isolation – but it did.

Post World War II

The recession and economic ravages following World War II also bear some similarities to where we find ourselves today. After six years of war and 75 million casualties, the world was weary. Years of rationing and wartime effort left many countries decimated and their people reeling.

Yet again, within a decade of the war ending in 1945, most western economies had recovered, some even surging beyond pre-war levels. Countries which had borne the brunt of hostilities, including Germany and Japan, experienced an economic and technological boom.

In spite of the undeniable challenges of the post-war world, businesses found their feet, experienced success and enjoyed decades of economic prosperity. The lesson for us is to examine how this happened and how we can harness this experience to steer us towards post-COVID recovery.

What Can We Learn From These Experiences?

History shows that recovery is possible. These experiences prove there is cause to look to the future with optimism, even as the current situation seems overwhelming. So, what does that mean for your business?

There are several reasons why the world was able to spring back from these crises, reasons that are just as relevant now as they were back then.

First, there was a general willingness to move forward and find better ways to reconstruct the world following the ravages of war. There was consensus that we could and should do better which drove a period of innovation and growth. Right now, similar calls are being made to change how we live and work in a post-COVID world. We should be ready to heed them.

Second, businesses forced to adapt and pivot operations during the war continued innovating and focusing on ways to make life easier in peacetime. We can already see the same phenomenon starting to happen now with businesses changing the focus of their operations to meet new needs, such as printing 3-D personal protection equipment and medical devices.

Third, the technological discoveries of wartime were harnessed and repurposed for everyday life. The technology behind computers, microwave ovens, synthetic rubber, instant coffee and jet engines emerged from the military. The current pandemic has already seen the development of new technology, such as robot food delivery systems and hands-free door handles.

The common themes are discovery, innovation, determination and agility. These are the qualities we need to cultivate as business owners to steer our operations through this current crisis and build a business for the future. So, how can we learn from the past and position our business to survive the pandemic and thrive in a post-COVID world?

Strategies To Help Your Business Forge A New Future

Change things up

The common element linking every recovery in history is innovation. Following conflict, pandemic or natural disaster, communities tend to come together to find new ways of doing things. That can be because of material shortages or oversupply, workforce limitations, travel restrictions or the emergence of new technologies.

It’s a cliche nowadays, but “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” It’s important for every business owner to think outside the box to identify new and revolutionary processes, products or services. In a crisis, nothing is truly off the table. Harness upheaval to spitball ideas, investigate new approaches and evaluate fresh ways to meet the needs of your clients.

Harness the growing calls to rebuild

One of the biggest reasons for recovery in the aftermath of the tragedies of the 20th century was a shared purpose. It was the acknowledgment that the world was not perfect and that there was a better way to live, work and do business. This new purpose was embodied in the establishment of the United Nations and similar international organisations.

The challenge for business owners now is to accept that we also need to rebuild. Crises tend to highlight cracks in the system and amplify them. We’re already seeing that in the calls for an end to insecure work, the spotlight on systemic inequality and failures in the aged care and disability sectors. Business owners should be ready to change tack and heed these calls to rebuild.

Create partnerships and seek collaboration

Businesses working together was a hallmark of wartime and post-war recovery. In many cases competition was largely put to one side as business owners worked together to solve society-wide issues and deliver cost-effective solutions. Examples of these include collaborations between General Motors and Ford in the US during WWII.

During a crisis, it makes sense to collaborate with other business owners to share ideas, identify opportunities and work together. There’s no point in reinventing the wheel and no advantage in working apart when a partnership could yield infinitely more powerful results. Consider creating relationships and using collaboration to secure the future of your business and your industry.

Invest in your business

In uncertain economic times, your instinct might be to curtail expenses and stop investing in yourself or your business. However, history tells us that investment is needed more than ever in times of crisis to ensure a strong recovery. After all, strategic investment and innovative government policies underpinned the business recovery in both post-war periods.

While making significant financial investments might be impossible right now, investing time in revisiting your business plan will help your business survive the current pandemic. Likewise, investing in developing strong marketing and branding strategies will position your business for a post-COVID future and help you identify potential areas of opportunity.

Make the most of training opportunities

In the aftermath of WWII, there was a greater emphasis on education and training, in large part to help transition soldiers back into civilian life. This focus on building knowledge and skills paid off and helped drive the post-war recovery. There’s no reason why your business can’t do the same thing, especially if your staff are underutilised or struggling with change.

Investing in building skills and knowledge doesn’t need to cost a lot and will pay off in the long run. As an example, the NSW government is offering COVID recovery grants and free training for small business owners and employees, while local councils are providing free webinars and subsidised training to encourage and support business investment.


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Consider pivoting into new areas

Before the war effort set them on the path to being a pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer was a citric acid manufacturer. The US government got them involved in making penicillin during WWII and the rest, as they say, is history. You may be in a similar position, having had to change the focus of your operations due to COVID restrictions or to safeguard your business.

Instead of seeing this as a short term solution until you “go back to normal” seriously look at long term opportunities for diversifying your business beyond the pandemic. Even if you haven’t experienced the need to pivot just yet, revisit your operations and look for opportunities to expand your services, productise or even move into a new field.

Prioritise digital transformation

While the digital world is relatively new, the idea of using technology to drive change is not – just look at how the world changed in the wake of WWII. Reviewing every aspect of your business to identify how you can improve efficiency is something all business owners should prioritise. How can you use technology to better solve problems – for both you and your customers?

The key to digital transformation is to first look at your overall strategy to ensure you’re on the right track. Then, identify technological solutions to help support you in meeting your business goals. Finally, you need to understand the best way to optimise your systems and processes to improve performance and meet the needs of your customers.

Invest in your people

While investment in new technology, processes and procedures historically plays a large role in recovery, business owners still need to bring people along with them. The success of each post-war period wasn’t only due to new technology or new and revolutionary products – it was driven by a shared purpose and a determination to change the world for the better.

To forge a new reality post-COVID, you need to invest in your people so they can come along with you. It’s vital to build resilience, improve skills, enhance knowledge and cultivate change from the bottom up. Without goodwill, connection and understanding from your people, there’s no way your business will be able to meet the changing needs of your customers.

As an avid historian, I may be biased, but I firmly believe that we need to learn from the past in order to build a viable future for our businesses. Looking back over the last century and examining how we’ve already recovered from different crises illustrates how we can start planning for recovery now.

It’s up to us to understand the forces that drive economic recovery so we can prepare ourselves and our businesses for what might lie ahead. There is a path out of this, we just need to be willing to learn from the past and be open to new ways forward.

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