In times of crisis and uncertainty, entrepreneurs are more likely to look outside of themselves for answers. Desperation makes the idea of a playbook—a quick-fix rule sheet outlining what worked for someone else in the marketplace—even more appealing. But we need to resist the temptation to check our creativity at the door. In this environment of high disruption, when all the rules have suddenly changed, it is more important than ever to ditch the playbook and focus on the toolkit instead.
There are three reasons to toss out the playbook. First, anything that has already been disclosed lacks an essential element of surprise. In sports, a play is successful when it is so novel—so innovative and unexpected—that no one sees it coming. By this logic, following someone else’s playbook inherently lacks ingenuity.
This leads to the second problem with playbooks: They invite copycats and crowd the space with imitator competition. Brands that are the first to deploy a new advertising method, introduce a new packaging format, populate a new social media platform, or discover a new distribution channel are able to stand apart from the pack. But as soon as too many others flock to the space, it’s no longer a great place to be noticed.
The third and final reason why playbooks fail is that they are almost always outdated; the rules that applied at one time rarely do now. If you started a food business today using the typical launch plan of 15 years ago, you might end up ignoring direct-to-consumer e-commerce, the importance of clubs such as Costco as avenues for trial, or the increasing role of retailers such as Walmart, Target, and Kroger in launching innovation.
We should spend less time searching for tried-and-true tips and tricks and instead focus on developing toolkits that will stand the test of time—that will shape an organisation’s culture and problem-solving methodology and inform how we navigate the market’s inevitable changes. The current pandemic is a wakeup call to focus on developing a team that will be nimble, creative, and compassionate under uncertain circumstances. Here are a few of the skills and values every toolkit can benefit from:
Critical thinking and listening
When faced with challenges, it is important to scrutinise conventional wisdom and question underlying assumptions before accepting statements as fact. Critical thinkers tend to be better problem solvers who rationally weigh the tough decisions required during crises. We need to create a culture in which team members can be comfortable having nuanced conversations without fear of being shamed. This means letting teams know that actively listening to others and questioning ideas we may not agree with is valued.
Resourcefulness and nimbleness
The entrepreneurial spirit, characterised by scrappiness and rejection of bureaucratic processes, is especially handy when navigating highly mercurial markets.
Yesterday’s approach to supply chains was to minimise duplication to achieve maximal efficiency. Today’s calls for inverting that paradigm. These days, redundancy allows for resiliency, so that if one factory needs to pause production, backup is already in place.
Temperance and moderation
Risk tolerance is important, but there is a difference between calculated risk and stupid risk. Leverage may be an important piece of the capital structure, but too much of it could be devastating. We are seeing now how over-leveraged retailers are suffering most during this pandemic. It is important to remember that all extremes are often dangerous.
Empathy is critical for navigating tough times together. We need to recognise all team members and partners as humans above all else, who have personal needs that are likely to be accentuated during times of crisis. It is important to put ourselves in one another’s shoes, exercise patience, and practice kindness in every small act.