Staying a slapshot ahead

By Rajiv Tandon, Ph. D.

I taught Minnesota North Stars hockey players when I was a professor at the University of St. Thomas. I had been coached briefly in middle school by Major Dhyan Chand, the legendary field hockey player. But on ice, it is not even the same game.

The course’s purpose could not be to improve the participants’ rink skills. It was a two-way street. I taught the players business acumen after their NHL days were over, and they familiarized me with the intricacies of a very fast-paced game.

Four decades later, the only thing I remember from that class is ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky. An accomplished player, he explained his extraordinary acumen by, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” I have frequently used this declaration as a metaphor for a successful strategy by anticipating a future state and not solely relying on the present conditions or history.

When you play the game with the Gretzky strategy, sometimes-forgive my mixing of metaphors-you find yourself in left field. So you must be equally adept at hustling to get back in the game.

COVID19 has disrupted everyone’s plans and expectations. Beyond the enormous loss of life, every business has faced significant disruptions. Entrepreneurs always face risks and fear as they build their business, but in 2020, it was has been at a speed and scale never seen in our lifetime. Yet, several small businesses have thrived during this very pandemic.

With vaccines or herd immunity around the corner, every company is wrestling with reaching the next normal safely. In many cases, these plans anticipate a return to some relatable version of the past. More likely than not, the puck maybe somewhere else.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell remarked that the economy as we know it is over “We’re not going back to the same economy, we’re going back to a different economy.” Uncertainties will continue due to the likelihood of a resurgence, discoveries about how the virus is transmitted, whom it affects, the nature and duration of immunity, and continued changes in the quality and availability of testing and contact tracing.

Entrepreneurs, it behooves you to build up your Gretzky’s muscle. Creating your company against long odds has already established your credentials as an accomplished player. To up the game, the best move is to push the organization to experiment with new ideas more quickly, well before the team is entirely comfortable. Test and implement several approaches and institutionalize those that rise as the most effective. At the same time, keep a keen eye on continually refreshed microdata about what is happening and if there is a need to amend quickly. As newer things appear, plan on near-continuous and instant recalibration. The objective is to find, during the crisis, the business model and strategy that is beginning to take hold in the future marketplace.

Your present company structure is loose enough for everybody to pitch in and do whatever is needed. The team will readily contribute to creativity and out-of-the-box thinking under today’s conditions. The time is right and very conducive to install this agility for the long run.

The specific details of trials are unique to your business. However, two typical critical uncertainties are the future of remote work and your customer’s behavior. You must bet on: Will there be a wholesale shift to remote work in your domain? Will the consumers return to their old ways? Etc.

This pandemic is not over. You have an opportunity to take advantage of your more established competitors. Many have their compulsions. In most cases, their structure has a foundation that has become solidified. The goal is locked to become more efficient, reduce costs, to improve financial performance further. Repeated directives of “Get back to blocking and tackling” have stifled creativity. New ideas to do different things have become a hardship. Efficiency sacrifices Effectiveness. Inviolable operating procedures are in the way of an urgent new arrangement. The typical approach for many of them is likely to spend thought and resources on detailed planning for crafting an interim game plan and be ready for the eventuality of a full reopening, with a return to 2019 normal.

Return to normal is not in the cards; change is constant, and disruptions will continue to shape the business climate for years to come. Now is a golden opportunity for your team to gain experience in absorbing uncertainties by placing a bet, recalibrating, fearless experimentation, and learning from the outcomes.

This competitive dexterity will define your company beyond this pandemic for many inevitable future structural shifts. Playing for where the puck will be is the key to elevating your organization from a competent player to a Gretzky.

A version of this article first appeared in Twin City Business Magazine.

To see other opinion columns go to medium.com/@rajivtandon.

Dr. Rajiv Tandon is executive director of the Institute for Innovators and Entrepreneurs and an advocate for the future of entrepreneurship in Minnesota. He is an adviser to fast growth Minnesota CEOs. He can be reached at rajiv@mn-iie.org.

Advocate for the future of entrepreneurship in Minnesota. Facilitates peer groups and runs programs for propelling ideas into ventures