In mid-April 2020 Redeye invited colleagues from Company of Mind, Adrian West and Sophie Brown, to talk online to artists and photographers about how to adapt creative businesses to the coronavirus pandemic. They shared some useful ideas about how to think about and picture businesses in a way that enables us to see what we might change for the better. In this article Adrian and Sophie explore those ideas a bit further.

 

We all get stuck thinking about our professional lives, or feel the need for new inspiration: where are we? where do we want to go? and how do we get there?

To move forward we need three things:

  1. Structures to break the task up into clear and manageable parts both to see the whole, and to work with it.
  2. Methods and inspiration to come up with fresh alternatives and ideas to experiment with and try out.
  3. An approach to convert our plans into do-able actions with direction, ensuring that we keep making progress on the ground.

And we need the time out to work on this with support and encouragement to do so.

That's the ground we covered, quite lightly, in our short session with Redeye on 14th April.

Here's a reminder of what we covered with notes and explanations so that you can take it forward if you wish to do so.

The Thinking Context

Thinking about things is hard – especially important things that are hard to pin down like “life” and “what we're doing with it”, or business plans. There are many reasons why it's difficult. For example it may not be the intellectual difficulty, but rather the emotional resistance we have to doing it. Or it can be a sense that we already really know what can or can't be done, and we're quite certain about that (but that is to forget that certainty is a feeling, not a state of knowledge). Or it can be that we just don't know where to start – the problem seems too big, unanswerable, and amorphous to grapple with – like a puzzle that seems impossible to solve until you know the answer.

But if it seems important, and we want to make progress, then we owe it to ourselves to try. It may be easier than we think if we approach the task with an open mind. It's typically much easier to advise others than ourselves for example. Why is that? There’s something to learn from there.

Structure

Most advances in the human capacity to think effectively have been the invention of structures to help us: mathematics, language and reason are some examples. With appropriate structures and frameworks we can be more focused, systematic, and reduce the tendency to fool and thereby limit ourselves.

When trying to see how a business works – what it is that we 'do', and how we can respond to changing situations and challenges – we can make the problems more tractable (and visible) by using different models of what a business is. Intellectually this can seem trivial – but this isn’t about intellect, it's about perception – seeing more, and seeing more clearly.

A popular model that we touched on is the Business Model Generation “Canvas”, which has an elegant simplicity. Being visual, it is easy to work with and share with others. Its deceptively simple form works because we can see both the individual parts and the whole picture in one go. This perception also forces us to focus on the real issues of exactly what our business is, in a way that the core elements and how they interact, can be simply described to others. That's true for companies large and small. It's true for individuals and sole-traders too – there's a version of the reference book specifically for individuals called “Business Model You”.

We took the four basic sections, but the full model has nine – which approximates the simplest useful view of a business, project, or enterprise. Let’s say we have spent time on that, and made  a good reasonable model of what we're doing right now. Even if our model isn't quite right, it helps us see what’s important and where we lack clarity – which is useful progress towards gaining a fresh perspective.

Ideas and options

Given a problem, opportunity or situation we're facing we can now use the model to work on the options available to us. We describe what the challenge is, and what's happening – for example the emerging trends, and rising or falling barriers, and see where they impact the parts of our model. The goal is to identify where change is happening, and come up with options for responding to it, perhaps seeing beyond difficulty to fresh opportunities.

There are a good few ways we can go about creating options and ideas – trends and barriers, and we also talked about outside views you can generate yourself to illustrate that point.

We can then compose different plans – models – and work through the implications. Each model is like a postcard for a holiday destination we're considering, where we can see different alternatives and possibilities.

Action

Having imagined possible destinations, we want to act in order to create a future that's attractive – and move in that direction. Typically we can't wait until we have all the right answers and information before we act. One reason is that in reality we often need to start acting to solve a problem in order to adequately understand what the problem or situation is.

But we want to manage risk too – it's too easy to have wild ideas we've convinced ourselves can't fail, but turn out to be bad. Just because some people in history have bet the farm and won – and written books about being bold – doesn't necessarily mean that we should follow their advice.

So, for those options that seem provisionally attractive (and maybe some that don't) we can design our quickest, cheapest experiment to validate the biggest assumptions, or leaps of faith they rest upon. It may be a few phone calls, or checking out some information already easily available (we used the airline example to illustrate that), or by asking a few people whether 'x' is something they would really want, or is a significant problem for them. In this way we have a set of tools we can use to respond to the changing landscape of our business – or other projects – in a creative, systematic, and safe fashion.

The value in taking time out to step back – which the current situation is forcing upon us – is that we can find new ways of jumping even further forward (“reculer pour mieux sauter”)  as we build capacity, understanding and flexibility to develop and respond to the new world unfolding around us.

 

Dr. Adrian West and Sophie Brown, Company of Mind: www.companyofmind.com

 

References

Business Model Generation” by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur,​ co-authored by 470 Business Model Canvas practitioners from 45 countries

Business Model You” a “one page method for reinventing your career” by Tim Clark, Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur,​ co-authored by 328 practitioners from the Business Model You community  – see https://businessmodelyou.com/ This has background material and resources you can download, as well as links to the book, and is useful for sole traders and individuals.

There are useful business modelling resources and downloadable “Canvases” at https://www.strategyzer.com/canvas

Serious Creativity:​ Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Create New Ideas” A good source of creative thinking methods and tools by Edward de Bono, the inventor of the term “lateral thinking”.

Discovery Driven Growth” by Rita Gunther McGrath and Ian C. MacMillan. https://www.discoverydrivengrowth.com/

Blue Ocean Strategy”  by W. Chan Kim & Renée Mauborgne. https://www.blueoceanstrategy.com/

 

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