Creativity in a Crisis
by Peter Fisk, bestselling author, speaker and advisor
There is nothing like a downturn to get you thinking differently.
Instead of simply trying to sell more of the same products - average products to average customers -
it dawns on us that we need to do something a bit smarter. Customer priorities, competitive
pressures, cost structures and value drivers have changed, and so must we.
Pablo Picasso said that “times of turbulence are the most exciting because everything changes”,
whilst Albert Einstein added “you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it”.
Crisis shakes everything up. And that means we need to fundamentally rethink too – rethink what
business we are in, which markets to focus on, who our best customers are, what our competitive
advantage really is.
Indeed we need the right-brain intuition and left-brain analysis of Einstein and Picasso to help us think
in more broader and connected ways, disciplined yet intuitive, and then decide where to focus our
valuable time and effort.
Crisis has always been the best time for entrepreneurs.
In 1876 Thomas Edison seized the moment of crisis to build the foundations of GE.1929 saw Hewlett
and Packard respond to the great depression by streamlining and automating production processes,
the start of HP. In the downturn of 1975, Gates and Allen gave up their jobs of outsourced
programmers for IBM with a dream to put a PC in every home and office.
In 2012, when we eventually emerge from our 4 years of turbulence, who will we admire most for their
bravery, boldness and brilliance during what will have been one of the deepest shake-ups?
Economic downturns are hotbeds of innovation (Source: Business Genius)
One thing is for sure. These winners will have recognised that crisis was the cry of a changing world -
that behind financial downturn, seismic trends are accelerating the transformation of markets.
From west to east, from big to small, from mass to niche, from business to customer, from volume to
profit ... these are the invisible tsunami-like power shifts that are happening right now. Whilst we
batten down the hatches, stay focused on our core, we ignore the swirling world at our peril.
Does this really matter to small businesses?
As Charles Darwin reminded us, it’s not the biggest or even the most intelligent who survive, it’s the
ones who are most able to adapt. Small not big - seizing the opportunity, outwitting the threats.
So how do we start rethinking?
Outside not inside ... outside is where change is happening, where the discontinuities are emerging,
and where 6.5 billion and more people are waiting for you to respond to their changed world.
Of course, it is easiest to see the world from the inside. We are the experts of what we know. We
have a product, we can make more, push them at more people, maybe discount the price if we really
have to ... We’ve done it for years, why can’t we continue?
Rethinking business from the “outside in”
“Outside in” thinking is both macro and micro. The big picture is about understanding your “adjacent
markets” – not just the category which you know well, but the related areas which have some
relevance to you. Like Kodak should have considered before its eclipse by the digital world, we should
look at market opportunities and competitive threats that are adjacent to our traditional domains.
We can do this quite simply through “market mapping” – an intuitive technique that helps you consider
what is adjacent to the existing ways in which you define your business – in terms of adjacent
capabilities, related categories, similar countries or new types of customers. Coca Cola did this and
found much faster and profitable growth opportunities in drinks other than their traditional soft drinks –
water, sports drinks, coffee and tea. Acquisitions and innovations quickly followed.
Once you have a market map, evaluate each adjacent dimension in terms of threat and potential, then
prioritise where you might want to focus your opportunities for growth, or like IBM, even shift your
“Customer immersion” is then another eye-opening technique to better understand customers in the
market spaces which you decide will be your new battlegrounds. Go find existing or potential
customers in these areas, sit down and talk to them about what they do, their hopes and fears, their
ambitions and frustrations. Don’t just ask them about current suppliers, or solutions, or “what do you
want” ... explore what they seek to do, but cannot, and why. Listen carefully, and they will likely
describe whole new areas for potential solutions.
Seeing things differently, from a customer’s perspective (Source: Customer Genius)
Back in the office, think about what these insights mean – how you could help them to do more,
develop more complete solutions, and in so doing, extend your offering, or even reframe your market.
These techniques are not hard, time-consuming or expensive, but they make you think.
Getting a small team of “thinkers” together from within your business, maybe together with a few
enlightened suppliers and customers, can be an incredibly creative and energising few days –
mapping markets, immersing yourselves in customer worlds, and then thinking creatively.
Of course, innovation is more than creativity, but it is the starting point, the rest is enlightened
process. And there are many more accelerated development techniques to help you take best ideas
to market quick and effectively. And again, its small businesses, who can do it best – spotting the new
opportunities and then moving quickly to exploit them.
Look at Kent-based EnviroProducts Ltd, the small business behind the billions of nanotech threaded
“E-Cloths”, the revolutionary kitchen or window cleaning cloths that need no eco-unfriendly
detergents, and clean better too. Or Ireland’s Small Business of the 2009, Connamara Seafoods, who
took a consumer perspective to see the growth of quality prepared meals, and started packaging up
its prawns into a ready meal at a huge premium.
Or Karla Beer, the small beer company that targets women with its fruit-infused female lagers. Or
Tesla, the electric car company that is pioneering £70k sports cars powered by lithium oxide batteries
that run for 1000 miles, proving that you can do good and be sexy too.
The stories go on ... companies who are seizing the fast changing markets, accelerated by the global
shake-up, and not waiting until the good times to do great things.
Big opportunities for 2010
Today’s world is full of infinite opportunities. Your challenge is to define them in a relevant way for
you, and then to choose which ones to go for. But they are unlikely to be defined by geography, more
likely one or more niches in the “long tail” of fragmented, specialised, globally connected markets.
So where will you find the biggest opportunities in 2010?
• Women. We know that women have long been the influencers in many purchases, but often
neglected by companies. However female disposal income, as well as influence, will rise at
three times the speed of China over the next 5 years – globally from $13 to 18 trillion. How
could you target, adapt and innovate for females in your market, or in adjacent markets?
• Networks. Individuals and markets are more connected and intelligent than ever before.
Reach the right person, and you can reach their entire social or professional network.
Collaborate in the right way, and you will find they will become your zero cost innovators and
best communication channels. Co-creation and advocacy are the new game.
• Sustainability. Social and environmental concerns rise ever more urgently. We can reduce
and recycle, but business can have a much great scale of impact – to engage people more
positively, and enabling them to fundamentally change behaviours – rethinking your own
offerings in a way that is caring and differentiating, and more profitable too. Green is today’s
most exciting catalyst for product, service and business innovation.
Whilst these are perhaps the three most exciting new opportunities to innovate and grow, your
existing customers have changed too. New research shows how customer attitudes were changing
before the downturn, how they are affected by economic crisis – some positive, others negative - and
how they will evolve in the future. Green and ethical trends have slowed but will come back, whilst
simplicity and authenticity are big themes.