Thinking the unthinkable.

We need to become artists of the impossible

A month ago, I wrote that contrary to CBI’s briefings at the time, this would not be a simple v-shaped recovery; that for most sectors, opening from lockdown would be an anxious, prolonged affair; and that physical distancing would still be a “thing”, for possibly another year, and that some things, like the need for lecture rooms and office space, might never return to the way they were before.

For some at the time, this will have felt like an unthinkable scenario. Yet, political messaging, public expectation and economic forecasts are now beginning to reflect that same forecast, and businesses urgently need to start taking the obvious implications far more seriously.

Because I also said, in the same breath, in print, on webinars, and to anyone who would listen, that the route to recovery would be through innovation; and that those who are first to find the simplest solutions to today’s new problems, will be the ones who come out of this fastest and strongest in tomorrow’s new landscape. And by seriously, I mean, seriously thinking the unthinkable.

Innovation will not happen by applying current ways of thinking to this new scenario. Restaurateurs who are sketching floor plans with metre-square four-tops spaced three metres apart, trying to work out how customers will get in and out, how servers will clear tables from six feet away, how kitchens can work safely with a brigade of half a dozen chefs, will never come up with an economically viable model without trebling or quadrupling the cover price. And I think they know this.

Within those constraints of preconception, it is technically impossible. Which is why we have to disengage those preconceptions.

Great managers are experts in the art of the possible, but over the next few weeks, we all need to start becoming experts in the art of the impossible. Most of the new challenges we will face will only be solved by reframing the questions; by coming at them from an entirely new perspective, without preconception, without constraint and with full permission to think the unthinkable. Because that’s the only way to solve impossible problems.

Is it impossible for a manufacturer who works with acrylic, to fabricate, install without damage, remove and ultimately reuse, custom-built shields or pods, inside and outside of restaurants, marquees, industrial sites? Is it possible to enable customers to set, serve, and clear their own tables from sterile trolleys? How could it be possible for two staff to comfortably run what may now have to become a hundred-cover bistro? And even, how might it be possible to sustainably run a restaurant business without any restaurants?

There will be parallel questions in most industries. How can one person, alone, install equipment that historically needs three people to install? The first installation business to solve that problem would be taking market share for months, maybe years. As would the first equipment supplier who could solve it for them.

The greatest ideas throughout business history have been those that enable customers to do things they couldn’t do before; that make their lives simpler, easier, more fun and enjoyable, more productive, less stressful… happier.

It’s hard to remember a time when there was greater opportunity to do all of those, than now.

Perhaps it’s time you started thinking the unthinkable, so you can find truly innovative ways to solve your customers’ impossible problems.