COVID has sucked. If you are involved in the hospitality industry, supporting workers in their offices, or in a face-to-face service role, it is likely that your position has been upended or eliminated. Many of our favorite restaurants have not been able to weather the reduction in cash flow and closed their doors. The dry-cleaning industry, only recently recovered from the impact of municipal smoking-bans, has seen 50% of its stores shutter. And elegant office buildings cannot give away office space.
Yet there are opportunities in COVID. Many companies are rethinking the changing needs of their customers or identified emerging markets and making clever pivots. The element that most success stories have in common is the elimination of intellectual obstacles.
The more common physical obstacle does not care about COVID. The speed of light has not changed. Trucks cannot carry any more than before. Solar and wind energy have not gotten any more efficient. And the human body still breaks down in the same ways. But obstacles that existed because people believed they should exist have been turned on their heads.
The most obvious example is the previously maligned and decades old video-meeting industry. Sales managers used to be adamant that a face-to-face meeting should never be replaced with a phone call. Executives were certain that zoom-meetings were unreliable and ineffective. Yet now both have been forced to learn, embrace, and acknowledge the efficacy and efficiency of phones and computers to conduct live meetings.
Tele-medicine is another example of an industry that has taken advantage of the removal of intellectual obstacles. The American Medical Association and government regulators consistently blocked this industry’s advance on the grounds that face-to-face medical conversations and state-specific licensing of doctors were superior and required. But both of those written-in-stone objections dissolved like Berry-Blue Jell-o in a swimming pool once it was realized that patient visits spread the disease and placed doctor and patient at risk.
Intellectual obstacles have fallen in the medical industry in the past. Once the idea of a home pregnancy test was opposed. It was well-regarded that a positive test needed to be accompanied with a conversation on prenatal health and best practices. But a private little revolution happened in the early 80s and health experts came to realize that early pregnancy detection was more important than informed pregnancy detection. Still, most tests that can be done at home are not allowed. Expect advancements in COVID home-testing to pressure the elimination of that obstacle across the field.
Another observable example of the elimination of intellectual obstacles is the relaxation of laws surrounding outdoor dining. Restaurant owners and politicians once accepted the agreement that sidewalks should never be blocked by tables, bus stations or any private business’s object of necessity. Table distance, property lines, and fencing were written into law and fiercely regulated.
But with COVID came the upset of that intellectual obstacle. Even the fiercest regulators understand that haphazard outdoor dining may be the only chance most restaurants have to survive – and they agree that their community is better off with restaurants! The creative things restaurants in my neighborhood have done would have been unthinkable a year ago. Plastic igloos completely block sidewalks sending pedestrians into the street or they sit in the street sending traffic around. Others have placed tables on land they don’t own or was inappropriate for dining. Non-code garden sheds, portable cabanas, and makeshift tents now house space heaters, picnic tables, and cute wintery decorations. In some cases (i.e., Camp Lottie’s) what restaurant entrepreneurs have come up with is better than what they had before COVID!
These examples do not just represent a few specific changes to age-old ways of doing things. They represent a change in the way business leaders should think about improving sales, efficiency, and finding new markets. Almost every rule that was once sacred is now open for discussion.
What should you do? Question, Try, Invest.
Successful leaders will not pass on this opportunity. Look at your business model, the way you produce, and the way you sell. Where are the intellectual obstacles in your system? What rules might not matter any-more? Engage your regulators and learn where they have moved the lines. Then consider challenging them to move the lines further. Think about how once unacceptable technology interfaces or automation can be implemented.
Once you have identified potential soft spots in the metaphorical walls limiting your operation, try to pierce them. Build a cheap app that avoids face-to-face contact and coincidentally also reduces costs. Try an automation idea that prevents COVID transmission even if it displaces a job. Test the waters vertically and horizontally. Throw a picnic table onto the sidewalk. Break some rules. See what takes.
And finally, make bets on what you have learned. The successful companies are going to come out of COVID with a business model that takes them in fundamentally different directions. They will discover that once half-baked acquisitions are now clever. They will learn that the time until positive ROIs, once measured in years, can now be measured in months.
You know that adage “change or die?” It’s never been truer. There may only be three paths forward: become a change leader, become an acquisition target, or go away. Which road should your company be taking as you navigate your way out of COVID?
If you would like assistance with your business’s strategic direction, email me. and we can set up some time to talk.