Think Like a Beginner on the Road to Recovery

A few weeks ago, I was working with a leadership team, helping them expand their thinking as they set out their new strategic plan. They weren’t as badly affected by the pandemic as others, so they are now turning their attention to their long-term plans.

During the session, I showed this slide and asked, “What do these four companies have in common?”

In case you’re not familiar with the logos, they are:

  • Groupon, a coupons and deals provider (like Scoopon, which is more popular in Australia)
  • Slack, a collaboration tool for workplaces
  • Uber, the ride-sharing service (among other things)
  • WhatsApp, the online text and voice messaging app

I have asked many groups about this over the last few months, with a range of responses, such as:

“They are all disruptors.”
“They are all digital companies.”
“They don’t own physical assets.”
“They all connect people to each other.”

I even had one person say, “They are all things that Gen Z’s can’t live without!”

These are all true, but there’s one other thing they have in common: They were all founded during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC).

In Australia, we escaped the worst of the GFC, but it hit Europe and North America hard. In fact, in the USA, it’s called The Great Recession.

So all these companies not only started – but thrived – during that recession, and beyond.

Now, I’m not sharing this to try to motivate you (“If they can do it in a crisis, you can, too! Yeah!”).

In fact, it’s the opposite. This coronavirus pandemic is both a health crisis – which we have managed well so far (fingers crossed) – and an economic crisis – which will be with us for many years.

The economic crisis hasn’t hit everybody equally. Some industries were hit very hard, and many businesses in those industries are still struggling. If we look at the Crisis-Recovery-Growth curve, they are still in crisis mode:

If that’s you, and you’re still in crisis or only just starting to think about crawling out into recovery, this next piece of advice is not for you. You need to think about survival, not growth.

But there are other businesses and industries already looking ahead – like the leadership team I mentioned earlier.

Even if you weren’t badly affected, you might be at risk.

Let’s go back to those four disruptive companies founded during the GFC: Groupon, Slack, Uber, and WhatsApp.

You might think it takes a lot of courage to build a disruptive startup company during a major crisis. It does take courage to start any company – especially one that will disrupt an entire industry. But in some ways, disruption and innovation are easier in a crisis.

We still see disruption and innovation when things are going well, but it’s not as easy. Customers are happy and don’t want to change, employees are secure in their jobs, leaders are measured by stock price and tiny bits of extra market share, and innovation is more risky.

But when there’s a crisis, all bets are off. Customers become desperate, employees are afraid for their livelihoods, leaders must step up to keep their businesses alive, and innovation becomes essential rather than optional.

That’s when a disruptive startup business can thrive. It doesn’t have to disrupt an entire industry itself; the crisis has already done that! It’s dangerous to drive with a cracked windscreen because it doesn’t take much for it to shatter completely. In a crisis, when everything is more brittle, it’s easier to make your mark.

What can you do about this?

This does not mean you need to shut up shop and start from scratch! But it does mean you should re-evaluate everything you took for granted in the past.

Think more like a startup.

While established businesses are looking inward to get back to normal, the startup business is looking outward to find opportunities.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
― Shunryu Suzuki

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming tomorrow’s world will be the same as yesterday’s world. Now, more than ever, approach everything with a beginner’s mind. For example:

  • Are you selling what customers want now (or have their priorities changed)?
  • Do you still have the right team for the future?
  • Do you have the right supply chain in place, given the way the world has changed?
  • Is your business model still relevant?
  • Are your internal systems still appropriate for a changed business model?
  • Do you have the right workplace for the future? (Our global working-from-home experiment is a good example)

You might think you know the answers, but don’t assume! Start with a beginner’s mind, all over again.


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