Thursday, January 28, 2016

Five Business and Economic Trends To Watch In 2016

Challenges and changes will be the hallmarks of 2016, but this year will also present great opportunities to far-sighted, innovative individuals and organizations.

1.  Economic headwinds intensify

Canada has been hit hard by the continued fall in the price of oil and other commodities, on which our economy depends heavily for investment and revenue. Not surprisingly, the province of Alberta has suffered disproportionately, with tens of thousands of jobs lost; the provincial government has also seen its tax and royalty revenues drop, inducing a large fiscal deficit. A lower loonie is the inevitable consequence of a fall in foreign investment to Canada’s extractive industries.

Of course, the global economy is highly integrated, and difficulties in one nation are usually indicative of broader trends. The weakening of commodities owes largely to a slowdown in the Chinese economy, due in part to persistent soft demand for Chinese manufactures in the most lucrative consumer markets: the U.S., the European Union, and Japan. China has managed to sustain a relatively high growth rate since the 2008 Great Recession with the help of public expenditures and private credit. But this tactic seems to be nearing the end of its rope, and investors are nervous about the implications—hence the volatile stock market.

All in all, 2016 is likely to be another year of economic uncertainty, and recession is a distinct possibility for many industrialized countries, China included.

2.  Millennials move up; Gen-Zers enter the workforce

It’s hard to believe that fears over “Y2K” came and went more than 16 years ago, yet here we are. In 2016 and in the years to follow, we will witness a major demographic shift in the workforce: Baby-boomers will continue to retire or cut back on their hours; Millennials will scale the professional ladder into positions of greater authority and prominence; and members of Generation Z—also called Post-Millenials or iGens, born in the era of boy bands and Spice Girls—will increasingly fill entry-level posts.

The visibility of this shift toward youth in business and politics will grow, as will its influence on consumer-market dynamics. Businesses that cater effectively to the preferences of the under-35 cohort by embracing mobile technology, values like social justice and environmental sustainability, and somewhat non-traditional work environments, will prosper.

3.  Departures from “business as usual”

Infused with youthful vigour and an innovative mindset, many organizations are adopting new ways of working.

Some workplaces have introduced elements of fun and relaxation into their office environments—like ping pong tables, recreation areas, and even dedicated spaces for taking naps. Others offer flexible work schedules, including unlimited vacation, conditional on employees completing all of their assigned tasks within a set timeframe. And last year, CEO Dan Price of Gravity Payments made headlines when he announced a minimum annual salary of $70,000 for workers at his business, and cut his own compensation by 90 percent.

With more young, socially conscientious individuals in the workforce and greater diversity in the executive suites, the trend away from traditional corporate structures and workplace dynamics will continue.

4.  Growth of the “gig economy”, and friction with the old order

The phrase “gig economy” is largely a misnomer, since a lot of “gigs” are really short-term employment stints, often in the service sector. For example, a customer who commissions a driver through a ride-sharing service is effectively hiring both the motorist and the company to provide transportation. But because of the informality of “gigs”, the temporary employer typically needn’t pay a minimum wage, or cover expenses like health insurance, workers’ compensation, payroll taxes, or job training. As a result, “gig” workers’ labour costs can undersell those of their counterparts in established industries by a wide margin.

In many major cities, taxi companies and drivers are lobbying municipal governments to either nullify certain regulations on the taxi industry to enable taxis to “compete” with ride sharing, or outlaw ride sharing altogether. Either way, the consequences for customers could be significant. Last year, the California Labor Commission ruled that an Uber driver was an employee rather than a contractor, and thus was entitled to claim certain out-of-pocket expenses. If this ruling encompassed all such drivers, ride sharing could lose a big chunk of its cost-competitive edge.

The inherent conflict between traditional work and “gigs” is far from settled.

5.  Opportunities in mobile services

Mobile technology has both greatly improved and become ubiquitous over the past decade, and accordingly, a healthy bottom line awaits companies that ride this wave successfully. A mobile-friendly web presence is more important than ever before, and businesses should strongly consider developing their own apps to facilitate access for customers with smartphones and tablets.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Conquer the Fear of Saying No

If you ask a person on the street which word is likelier to contribute to personal and professional success—yes or no—that individual will probably choose the former. But as many leaders in the world of business and politics will tell you, learning to say no can be every bit as important as knowing how to say yes. The reasons for this are largely intuitive: by turning down some engagements, you free up time, energy, and mental focus for the endeavours you find most inspiring.

However, many of us feel distinctly uncomfortable with saying no, often because we worry that doing so may cause offence or otherwise lead to negative social consequences. Insofar as it compels us to take on more commitments than we can handle at any one time, this anxiety can hamper our pursuit of the professional and life goals that are most important to us.

Establish and respect your own boundaries.

Your work is surely a high priority for you—but so are your health, quality time with friends and family, leisure time, and other hobbies or avocations. Think of your lifestyle as analogous to a meal: nearly everyone would prefer a flavourful medley of high-quality, healthy ingredients to a monochromatic, humdrum dish of little nutritional value. Likewise, if you devote all of your time to a single work-related project, you probably won’t enjoy a wholesome existence.

Once you set parameters like the number of hours you’re willing to devote to a new project, and commitment versus expected benefit, you’ll find it easier to distinguish the undertakings that really interest you from the also-rans.

Be honest with yourself.

Before you dive headfirst into any significant assignment, ask yourself the following questions:

1)  Am I genuinely passionate about this project?

2)  Five years from now, will I look back on my efforts with pride?

3)  Is it consistent with my values?

4)  Why is it important to me to take this on?

5)  Will I be able to dedicate sufficient time to this?

6)  Do I have the necessary technical expertise, and/or can I partner with someone who does?

Unless you can answer all or most of those questions, you’re better off saving your talents for something that’s more up your alley. Otherwise, you’ll likely either feel stretched too thin, or a sense of regret about the opportunity cost.

Know your strengths.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. The first step on the path to success in any field is to identify your own. Once you know where your own aptitudes and deficiencies lie, you can work to refine the former and improve the latter. You’ll also know which of your personal attributes you can rely on in high-pressure situations.

The willingness to venture outside one’s comfort zone is often an admirable quality. But if a project either isn’t your cup of tea from a technical standpoint, or you sense that your time would be better spent elsewhere, you should consider either turning it down or delegating it.

Strategies for politely declining:

“I’d like to know more. Can you send me more information?” This serves two purposes. First, it provides a test of the other individual’s commitment; if you never hear from h/er, you will know. Second, it gives you the opportunity to learn more about the endeavour itself before deciding whether to take it on.

“Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” This is not an explicit demurral, but it does enable you to buy time. It is possible that the person who pitched the idea to you will forget after a while. Alternatively, on further reflection you may decide that the project is right up your alley.

“This seems like an excellent, worthwhile idea, but unfortunately...” Shortage of time is an excuse that most people will accept, particularly if they’re not close friends of yours who happen to be conversant with your schedule.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

How to Keep (For Real) Your Professional New Year’s Resolutions

The standard tale of the unfulfilled new year’s resolution—an ambitious goal that one articulates, commits to, and promptly abandons—has become a cultural cliché in our society. In fact, many fitness professionals joke that January is the busiest month of the year at the gym, whereas February usually brings a normal volume of customers. Regardless of the area in which we see room for self-improvement, thinking of a new year’s resolution is one thing; actually following through is another.

What is true of personal goals is equally true of professional ones—setting a work-related resolution is easy, but actually fulfilling our ambitions requires commitment, perseverance, and consistency.

Friends and colleagues can hold you accountable.

“Will power” needn’t merely be a matter of individual steel and grit; you can enlist the help of others
to hold you accountable for your commitments. If your goal is to keep yourself in better physical shape this year, try joining a running group or scheduling exercise sessions with a friend. If you have particular professional ambitions—such as finishing a project ahead of a fixed deadline—announce them to your colleagues, staff, and anyone else who will listen. Although most people won’t go out of their way to remind you of your shortcomings, the desire to avoid the shame of breaking a public promise can be a powerful motivator.

Set manageable targets.

If you have an ambitious, long-term goal, you may find yourself daunted by the thought of what you need to do in order to reach the finish line, and the massive amount of effort and commitment involved. Instead of approaching a challenge this way, you may instead find it helpful to identify intermediate landmarks.

For instance, if your office is disorganized and you’d like to rectify that, don’t allow the scariness of tidying up an entire room to overwhelm you; aim to keep a corner of your desk clear of clutter, then another corner, etc.

Create a roadmap for yourself, including a clear understanding of the process involved in reaching your final goal, and reward yourself as you surpass each milestone. Of course, you can expect that some days will be easier than others, but remember that even slight progress toward your desired outcome is better than none.

Foster new habits.

As human beings, we all tend to be creatures of habit. This partly explains why committing to a new year’s resolution is so difficult; unless we continue a particular activity long enough to cultivate a new habit, we easily slip back into familiar, comfortable patterns of behaviour. Our habits are like molds that shape our personal characteristics and abilities, and it takes time and dedication to restructure those molds. But fortunately, it can be done.

In the quest to develop new habits, planning and intentionality are valuable allies. Establish your intentions, write them down, and commit them to memory. To help manage your time, set temporal boundaries for yourself—for instance, “I will check my e-mail inbox at 11:00 a.m., but no sooner, and I will finish with that task by 11:20.” Personally, I find it helpful to work in segments of 20-30 minutes, and time myself with a stopwatch.

Don’t let a slight shortfall deter you.

Even after an honest effort, you may find that you’ve fallen short of your new year’s resolution. But don’t let that disappointment dissuade you from setting ambitious goals and pursuing the professional success you desire. Even if you don’t quite attain your goals this time, you will learn valuable lessons that will help you in your next attempt.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Can Corporations Halt Climate Change?

In an article published in Harvard Business Review, science historian Naomi Oreskes and green business advocate Auden Schendler argue that we can’t count on large, for-profit corporations to undertake meaningful climate action on their own.

One take-away from Oreskes and Schendler’s piece is hard to dispute: in order to combat climate change, a binding and meaningful international climate accord is essential. But is the authors’ pessimistic assessment of major corporations vis-a-vis the climate also warranted? That depends.

The profit motive versus the climate?

By providing an incentive for business leaders to respond to the forces of supply and demand in the marketplace, the profit motive plays an integral role in all capitalist market economies.

In theory, robust demand for a given product or service causes its price to rise, which motivates businesses to supply more. Firms that respond nimbly to consumer demand are rewarded with increased profits. In the world of natural resources and commodities, scarcity drives prices higher, which encourages investment in research and development, and drives the search for alternative fuels and material inputs. In a competitive marketplace, consumers theoretically gain access to innovative, high-quality goods and services at the lowest feasible cost.

The idea that the pursuit of self-interest is conducive to the collective welfare of society has a long history, with famous exponents including Adam Smith, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman. Large corporations of the present day generally adhere to a similar principle; in fact, courts in the U.S. and other countries have ruled that publicly traded businesses have a fiduciary responsibility to pursue profit on behalf of their shareholders. This framework saddles the state with enforcing laws and regulations, deterring and prosecuting crimes, dealing with externalities, and generally safeguarding the public interest.
Whither externalities?      

Externalities are costs or benefits that are not embodied in the market price of a good or service. Industrial belching of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere contributes to the negative externalities of pollution and climate change. Health care, by contrast, yields positive externalities by promoting a a more salubrious society. As long as they remain external to market prices, externalities can seriously undermine the ability of our economic system to advance human welfare.

Governments can partly redress climate externalities by taxing or regulating polluters, and providing incentives for non-polluters. But since there is only one atmosphere, and climate change is occurring at a global scale, policies of this kind must be internationally harmonized in order to be most effective.

Moreover, governments are never disinterested actors; they are subject to lobbying by various parties and interest groups (including major corporations with significant investment in the status quo). The appropriate price of carbon emissions, for example, is a contentious issue. No government is omniscient, and uncertainty invites differing perspectives, interpretations, and geopolitical tensions.

For instance, U.S. representatives might argue that meaningful progress can’t occur on the climate file without hefty emissions reduction commitments from China. China’s representatives might retort that relatively inexpensive Chinese manufactures benefit western corporations and consumers—so the developed world shares partial responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions in China. Both arguments contain a kernel of truth, and there is no simple way to ascertain which kernel deserves more weight.

The “free” market

Even the most elementary functions of government influence private market interactions. There is no such thing as a “free” market.

By levying taxes, the state encourages its citizens to change their behaviour in order to avoid those taxes. By commissioning the construction of roads and highways, it facilitates private automobile transport, and in turn, props up the automotive industry. With its police force and judiciary, it enforces private property and enables accumulation. Through public education, it contributes to the productivity of private enterprises. Unemployment insurance programs enable risk-taking and entrepreneurship by mitigating the costs of failure. Every successful capitalist economy has included significant government intervention, and public policy is thoroughly enmeshed in market dynamics and outcomes.

In a sense then, “Can corporations help solve climate change?” is the wrong question. Instead we should ask “Can the world’s governments structure market incentives so as to internalize externalities, and make fossil fuel combustion less profitable?” As long as cutting greenhouse gas emissions is more expensive than continuing to emit them, profit-seeking corporations will be unreliable partners (at best) in the campaign for a stable climate.