Opportunity in Chaos

Opportunity in Chaos

Harnessing the disruption of the pandemic is the entrepreneur's advantage.

At the time of another great crisis, the Great Depression, American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote the “Serenity Prayer”: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” To those who have survived this far in 2020 (by our wits and federal help), congratulations!

This black-swan pandemic has exposed so many vulnerabilities in our global systems that it is testing our resolve and resilience. Many of those vulnerabilities are beyond the control of most of us.

Looking at the aftermath of past crises like the Spanish flu of 1918, other pandemics, or World War II, we can confidently anticipate a similar dramatic restructuring of the economic and social order. We will see long-term transformative shifts in the ways we work, shop, relax, educate, manage our health, and maintain relationships with friends and family. There is no organization that is exempt. This is inevitable and something we cannot change. We must accept it.

Take heart in the fact that there is opportunity buried in all this chaos. Many successful startups were born during a crisis. The tech world enjoyed startups such as Airbnb, Pinterest, Uber, Square, and Slack after the 2008 financial crisis. Similar examples of innovation can be found after the Great Depression. As the saying goes, “Investments are made in the downturn and collected in the upmarket.”

A shock of this scale has already created a profound shift for all companies, their employees, and their customers. The pandemic has blown all the carefully crafted plans of every organization. Things may never return to the 2019 normal.

We will see long-term transformative shifts in the ways we work, shop, relax, educate, manage our health, and maintain relationships with friends and family. There is no organization that is exempt.

A new normal is inevitably around the corner. We see the glimpses of it already. The wisdom is in looking at the present problems that we are encountering as a gateway to conceive of the new order and the courage to act on it now.

Here are a few thoughts for all my entrepreneurial brethren:

• Prioritize your health. Heed the pre-flight announcement of airlines, “In case of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” You have to be healthy before you can help others.

• Take advantage of consumer sentiment for the underdog. My assessment, based on nothing scientific, is that customers believe that larger companies can take care of themselves and we have to support the little guy. Take advantage of it.

• Create good customer experiences. It leaves a lasting impression that won’t be forgotten.

• Use a platform and established methodology for generating ideas. Generate many ideas and select a few key ones from among them. Dig for the risk factors inherent in those. If you can mitigate most of those risks, you have the kernel of something new to launch.

• Cast a wide net. Collect, retain, and brainstorm a broad swath of ideas. Some are defensive moves; others go on offense. Some ideas can be deployed now, while others may be opportune later.

• Redefine failure. Many of our assumptions will fail. It is a given. But failure is not defeat; it is something that did not work out. Remove the stigma of failure. Position it as a learning opportunity. Learn and provide support to try again. The single most important skill at this time is the ability to take a well-calculated risk.

• Evolve innovation management. Don’t get bogged down by “it hasn’t been done before”—that’s what innovation is all about! Unlike the corporate model, where a small elite group manages innovation, engage all employees to provide constant real-time information and ideas, and then pay them heed. Such an endeavor is not only a source of innovation, but also dispels a sense of doom.

• Embrace improvised and unorthodox solutions. We can learn from the age-old Indian concept called jugaad, which has been honed under adverse conditions and severe resource constraints. It is a tried-and-true system of seeking opportunity in adversity, doing more with less—thinking and acting flexibly while also serving marginalized customers who are neglected during the crisis.

If we plan to thrive, rather than merely survive, we must muster the courage to position ourselves at the forefront of this crisis. A structural break is the very best time to apply such thinking—when old sources of competitive advantage have weakened and new sources haven’t jelled yet. The window is open wide for some time, until the pandemic risk eventually blows over or is tamed.