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We’re all in a new business now: rapid innovation for troubled times.

Updated: Jul 11, 2020

We’re all in a startup now.

Falling dominoes stopped by hand.

The classic definition of a startup is an organization "designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” Your actual product doesn’t need to be new for this to apply to your business too. As of the last couple of weeks, many of the things that define your product -- the verticals it serves, the channels it’s sold in, its customers and their locations, the supply chains that power it -- have definitely changed. So you have a new product.

(Although this is a “side issue” I want to put it up front: for the sake of all of us, please do consider whether using your company’s skills to make a totally new product isn’t in fact what the world needs right now. Can you retool to make ventilators safer or more secure? Can your tech or your services help kickstart the financial stimulus packages coming down the pike? Can you be the hub for a new, crowd-sourced way of getting something done?)

How can you use new-product-thinking right now? Here are three important steps to take:

1. Be a Learning Player, not a Knowing Victim.

In this challenging time, it’s hard to not feel like the pandemic is victimizing us all in unimaginable ways. We are all searching for hard knowledge, certainty about what is happening to us. Unfortunately, these are impulses that will stifle creativity and innovation.

Hard as it may be, take some time to shift in two important ways. First, think of yourself and those you work with as Players, focusing on the things you do control: yourself, your actions as a team, the solutions you bring to the world every day. Second, shift from seeking certainty and knowledge to seeking learning and understanding. Rather than stating what your experience tells you to be true, ask “what-if” questions even about what used to be so obvious.

We are going through an unprecedented change. It’s OK to challenge even our most tightly held beliefs and assumptions, including the one that says we are the victims of Covid-19. Explore in yourself and those you work and live with the things you CAN control and the learning that you can do even now.

2. Revisit your business’s core assumptions.

What, exactly, has changed for your business?

Take an hour or two to map out the elements of your business that the pandemic has genuinely shifted or will soon. A great tool for this is the Business Model Canvas (BMC), which summarizes in one page most of what makes any product, service or solution work in the real world.

Has your value proposition evaporated (imagine a restaurant owner whose business depends on serving fish cooked just before it gets to the table)? Have your channels shifted radically (imagine almost any school in the country that teaches in a classroom)? Has a big chunk of your revenue disappeared (imagine mass transit systems that no longer have fare-paying riders)?

The BMC isn’t the only way to map out the changing landscape, but it provides a common way for you and your team to explore what’s really happened. The Canvas is most useful when people fill it out individually and then share results so that you get as diverse a perspective on what’s happening as possible. To map the delta between before Covid-19 and after Covid-19, build a “pre-pandemic” BMC together and then have each person on your team go off for 20-30 minutes to list what’s changed in each of the Canvas’ 9 areas.

When you’re done, you should have a new perspective on what’s really going on. Treat these insights as assumptions that you now have to go out and test before you validate them.

3. Test against the new reality.

The severity of our situation demands fast learning (NOT fast knowledge!). Build on the map of assumptions you built in the prior step to make a prioritized list of what you have to learn right now.

One tip for prioritizing these learnings is to use a two-way screen. First, identify the assumptions most important to survival or success in this new era. Second, rank them by how much real data you have to validate them. Start your testing with the most important assumptions for which you have the least information. By starting where uncertainty is most critical you are likely to get the greatest return for your time and your resources at this critical juncture.

The most common way to test assumptions about what needs to change or a new line of business is to speak with your customers. Make no mistake -- the people you serve will always be your greatest informants, but conversations with customers are actually just one type of Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Search Minimum Viable Product types to tap into lots of other options.

No matter how you choose to test your assumptions stick with the “learner” mindset and test iteratively. Build your first MVP, measure the results, learn from them and start all over again. If customer interviews are the way you’re going, come up with a structured set of questions, ask as many customers as you can reach, evaluate the answers you get and either proceed based on those answers or go back and ask more.

The reason interviews are so important is that they give you the chance to directly sense how your customers feel about the changes or new products you want to make. Other MVPs achieve this in other ways, but don’t make the mistake of sending out a form or a survey, because that only really tests how likely your customers are to open an email from you. In this moment of quarantine, get close by calling and connecting.

If you only take the first two steps, you will still be way ahead of the game. You will undoubtedly find many assumptions at the end of step two for which you have enough data to act. You may know that some channels have definitely dried up (the kids, for example, are not coming back to class). You may know that some costs are now radically different. You can use this learning to prioritize budget and program cuts now and save vital resources you will need to pivot to a new business model.

And you can start on all three steps today. You can map your assumptions this morning, make calls testing them this afternoon, and have a “new product” by tonight. You can take the results of today’s sprint into tomorrow to find a way to survive, to contribute and even maybe to thrive.

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