Wider World of Business

You either love or hate “end of the year” articles that talk about evaluating the past year and planning for the coming year. I have mixed emotions about them: psychologically the end of the year is an important milestone but, pragmatically, nothing really starts or stops abruptly except your bookkeeping, depending on your fiscal year.

Lots of pundits will make predictions about the coming year and a few might even be correct. “What might happen?” is an interesting question. “What will you make happen?” is the essential question.

Toward that end, you need to wring every lesson out of the past 12 months and keep learning like a sponge in the year ahead. So why not ask some important questions now about the year gone by but continue to ask them in the year ahead?

Here are eight questions to get your creative and strategic juices flowing:

1. What were the breakthroughs?

Hopefully you had a few — grand slams, epiphanies and victories. Don’t move so fast that the lessons of those breakthroughs don’t sink in. Not only should you make time to enjoy them, you should deeply reflect on what enabled those breakthroughs and what principles, strategies or tactics can be applied to other areas of your business.

2. What were the breakdowns?

There is no upside in brooding about breakdowns, but there is an advantage in doing post mortems to find the causes. Look for the what’s and the why’s that contributed.

No breakdowns in the past year? Good for you. But certainly you had some moments where you came close to experiencing disaster. Look for hidden lessons in what almost happened and why.

3. Who delivered?

To he or she much is given, much is expected. Are you taking commensurate care of your best performers and business partners? Do you even know who they are?

You can ensure the longevity of valued relationships by giving them the appropriate appreciation, time and care. Sometimes we take those who deliver for granted and inadvertently damage the relationship. And maybe those who delivered in 2013 need new opportunities and rewards in 2014.

4. Who disappointed?

In a perfect world we could count on every business partner to do what he promised. In reality, not all partners perform equally, and we often waste time with those who disappoint us. Evaluate who you need to improve or replace to make your business more efficient and profitable. Don’t go to disappointing people out of unexamined habit.

5. Where do you need to persist?

Results aren’t linear. They arrive in fits and starts. Because we haven’t seen a gradual payout from some efforts, we begin doing them less and eventually stop doing them altogether. It wasn’t that the effort was misplaced: the problem was our lack of persistence.

Evaluating what to persist at is both science and art. If evidence from others who have benefited is compelling, don’t quit prematurely because you haven’t seen a pay off yet.

6. What do you need to let go?

Don’t stubbornly cling to practices, relationships and projects that have never reached critical mass. We persist in the wrong things out of habit and fear of admitting failure. For instance, if you’ve had an important “to do” on your list for months (or years), it is time to “let it go.”

Now is a good time to free up needed resources by letting go of the unproductive, vexing or wasteful. You’ll find the practice freeing.

7. What are the biggest threats?

Don’t you, like me, see threats well in advance and yet refuse to deal with them until it is too late? Most of us buy our home alarm system after the break in. It is human nature to play by the belief, “it won’t happen to me.”

I’m not suggesting paranoia, but if you know it will eventually rain, what are you doing today to prepare? Identify that most serious threat that could derail your business. Take steps to avoid what you can and develop a contingency plan for what you can’t.

8. What are the greatest opportunities?

As the American comic strip character Pogo said, “We are surrounded by insurmountable opportunities?” (Actually the cartoon character didn’t. The sentiment is a myth, but a wise myth at that.) Just as we can ignore threats, so can we miss the opportunities around us. We are sometimes so busy trying to create opportunities that we don’t see the ones that already exist. Where are the biggest opportunities for you and your team going forward?

Reflection is powerful when it leads to recalibration. Once you’ve identified the what, consider the why, but don't get stuck on it. There are insights to be gained from understanding, but in an imperfect world, you won’t always determine the reasons something did or didn’t happen (or determine them correctly). The money question is “What to do now?” Recalibration is a change in attitude, behavior and/or direction. And therein lies your great opportunity in the year — or any year — ahead.