A client and friend runs a video production company that specializes in big budget corporate videos for Fortune 1000 companies. For years his firm has battled commodifying forces as the tools of video production have become democratized. When I checked in with him last week I expected to hear bad news, but instead I heard “we’re busier than we have been in a very long time.”
I won’t betray him by giving away his new service offering and thus creating untold instant competitors (sorry), I’ll only say that instead of destroying his business, the travel constraint imposed on him has caused him to think more creatively about what his clients need right now and how he can deliver it in an entirely new way. The result is his business is thriving when it might otherwise be dying.
While my friend has felt the pressure building on him for years, there was never enough urgency to warrant a significant pivot. Things quit being great years ago, but they weren’t horrible either, they were just slowly sliding in that direction. Cue the crisis. Where he was once the metaphorical frog being boiled slowly, now he finds himself dropped into a pot of already-boiling water and he has done the proper, reflexive thing and hopped out.
This is the value of constraints—they force creativity—and it’s one more example of not letting a good crisis go to waste.
Let’s Play Some Games: Constraint Driven Exercises
I’ve been using constraint-driven exercises for years to think creatively about my own business and to help our clients free themselves from the mental models in which many have become trapped. “Reimagine your business in a world without travel” is one such exercise (I think of them as games) all entrepreneurs are playing right now. Not just you: hair stylists, yoga instructors, dog obedience trainers, etc.—everyone is adapting to this, or trying to. Some won’t survive, but many will thrive in ways that they never thought possible.
I’m going to give you some more constraint games to help you find some adjacencies in your own service offerings and you’ll notice the same pattern with each one: your initial reaction will be, “I can’t do that!” But as you sit with the puzzle for just a few minutes, you’ll start to see that the constraint itself becomes the raw material for some very creative solutions.
Example: No Exit
My favorite constraint-driven exercise is called No Exit. It goes like this: Imagine that you can never sell your business and you can never retire. What changes would you make in your business as a result? What changes would you make in your life?
When I play this game with a live audience in my talk The 5 Constraints (all different from the ones below, which I have selected specifically for these times), I ask the audience at the end of the talk how many of them have decided in the last hour that they will never sell and never retire. About 25% of them raise their hands. That’s the pattern. You will go from “This is impossible!” to “This is a hardship” to “I can respond to this in a way that makes me and my business better off.”
Set Your Baseline
To prove my hypothesis that by playing these games you will find yourself re-energized about your business and more optimistic, let’s take a baseline measurement of your optimism for your business right now.
On a scale of 0 to 10, with 5 being neutral, how optimistic are you about the rest of the year ahead?
Write your number down. Now let’s play some games. There are six of them. Spend as much or as little time on them as you wish. (Time is a great constraint for inspiring creativity. It’s one reason why creative people tend to procrastinate.)
#1: A World Without FTEs
Imagine the business is just you without any full-time employees (FTEs). If you need team members you have to employ the Hollywood studio model in which you bring contractors together for a project and then disband.
What people and or roles would you keep? What other changes would you need to make? If the people are somewhat interchangeable, what remains that makes you distinct?
Once you’ve played this game, play a second version of it where you are allowed to keep up to 10% of your historical headcount as FTEs. Which roles go to FTEs and which go to contractors?
#2: A World Without Pitches
I’ve had a lot of people ask me recently how they might “pitch” business when they cannot travel. My response is there has never been a better time to try to derail competitive pitches. So here’s the game.
You cannot pitch (give any idea or advice away for free) anything to win business. How do you get new clients? What tools or approaches do you use instead? Let’s keep this current and add in the travel constraint: you also cannot meet with the prospective client face to face.
If you want to take this even further, add in one more constraint: you cannot incur any cost of sale.
#3: A World Without Doing, Only Advising
Imagine that you are no longer able to do any execution work for your clients, you are only allowed to advise, educate or train. What does your new firm look like? Are you still doing business at the same level within your client organizations or does that need to change? What else must change?
#4: A World With Only Products
Imagine that instead of fee-for-service work, your clients instead must buy a product or productized service from you. No customization is allowed, and no intellectual property (IP) can ever transfer. What product (digital or physical) or productized service do you create? How do you achieve the added scale you need to support this model? What are the other implications on your business?
There might be some duplication here with the outcomes of the previous game (#3). If you want to go deeper into this one, be sure to read my recent post on Recurring Revenue Models.
Stretch Goal Games
The last two games will similarly see you imagine your business in the future, not under the limit of constraints but in trying to achieve certain stretch goals. The net result is similar.
#5: 10X Your Business in 3 Years
This one comes from Strategic Coach founder Dan Sullivan. His thinking is that doubling or tripling your business can often be achieved by increasing effort or efficiency within the same business model, but those tools won’t get you to ten times. Where 2X-ing your business is analogous to moving house in the same city, says Sullivan—you can take everything with you—10X-ing is analogous to moving to the other side of the world—you have to leave most things behind. You will likely have to abandon your business model for a different one.
You have to 10X your success (revenue, profit or other meaningful measure) in three years? How do you do it? What does the new firm look like?
Feel free to bring in some elements of your solutions from previous games.
#6: Buy a Business or Merge
I’ve been posing this question to team members recently: If we were going to buy another business at the bottom of this economic crisis, what business would we buy?
You are forced to make an acquisition. What business, added on to your own, would make yours a powerhouse coming out of this economic downturn? Pretend that all businesses are for sale at prices you will never see again. If you don’t have cash, imagine that the seller will finance. What would you buy, and why? (Merger is okay, too.) What would the new entity look like? Be sure to consider how your market might change over the next year and beyond.
Invaluable Raw Material
The ideas you generated from these six games are an invaluable source of material to help you adapt to the new midterm reality and beyond. Where perhaps you previously saw that you had few options beyond hoping this crisis passes soon, I expect you can now see more than one path forward. While the material is still raw, you have only just begun. Draw on these ideas to reshape your business as needed. Think more deeply on the implications of your favorite ideas. Enlist others to help think this through. The market and your own cash position will decide if you have to change, but now you have numerous ideas on how you might.
How Is Your Optimism Now?
Okay, after doing these exercises, how optimistic are you about the year ahead on the same 0 – 10 scale?
Nothing about your external reality has changed to bring about an increased optimism, you are only thinking about the challenge more creatively, thanks to the power of constraints.
Have you unlocked a new product or a new way to sell your services? Have you discovered an adjacent market to explore? If the next step is to start generating leads consider…