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Adapt or Die: How to Maintain Relevance Through Economic Upheaval

There’s a lovely little eatery down the road from me called Willow Creek Restaurant. It maintains a charming ambiance and serves delicious American fare. (I’ve got a soft spot for their spring mushroom gnocchi.)

Willow Creek — like the rest of the decimated restaurant industry — has faced adversity in the wake of coronavirus. But it’s how they responded to that adversity, that stands out to me and serves as powerful example of pivoting powerfully into a new economic reality.

Thriving in Upheaval

The restaurant business isn’t alone. Whole industries have gone from “thriving” to “barely surviving” in what seems like an instant. To be sure, some businesses will have what it takes to make a comeback when society emerges from its quarantine. But not every business has the luxury of waiting that long to find out.

What is the key to holding on — or perhaps even flourishing — through this moment of economic upheaval?

Relevance.

You can only supply what is in demand. You can only sell to others what is truly relevant to their wants and needs. But what happens when what your product / service — due to circumstance — is no longer relevant? Accessible? Available? The pandemic has accelerated the urgency of the question for millions of business owners.

A Strategy of Hope

In working with my clients, I’ve observed two strategies for dealing with the economic upheaval. The first is a Strategy of Hope. You hope that at some future point, your product / service will become relevant once again. A restaurant owner’s Strategy of Hope might sound something like this: “Listen, people can’t come out to eat. There’s really nothing I can do about that. Hopefully this will all end soon and we can get back to doing what we’ve always done, what we do well. In the meantime, let’s try to do more take-out, and see if we can weather the storm that way.”

The limitation of a Strategy of Hope, is that it is both rigid and reactive. It says: we are who we are, we do what we do, and the circumstance dictates that these are no longer relevant. Hopefully the stars will align for us once again. Until then, let’s just hold on. In this case, they may also take measures to reduce cost and hunker down. It assumes things will return to how they were before.

I’m not so sure.

A Strategy of Design

The second strategy is a Strategy of Design. This strategy is about pivoting to design new, relevant offers that are needed today. It is a much tougher thing to do, because it requires you to suspend the way it has always been done to consider how it could be done.

Inertia is at play here. At a basic, human level, we don’t like to change very much. We find comfort in the way it has been done. It’s what we know. It’s how we’ve reliably produced results in the past. But what use is there in reliably producing results that no one is looking for? A Strategy of Design acknowledges that what was relevant yesterday may not be relevant today or even tomorrow.

So how do you do it? How do you pivot toward relevance?
Here are four steps, and how my local favorite restaurant followed them:

Step One

Ask: What is a need/breakdown that my customer (community / prospect) is facing now, or will face in the near future?

We don’t always have to sell into a breakdown; however, if you look around, you will notice that it is much harder to refuse an offer when it successfully addresses a current or impending breakdown. If your current offer addresses a need or breakdown that was relevant two months ago but not today, that’s no good. If it addresses a need or breakdown “someday in the future,” that’s no good either. What are they facing right now? Give yourself permission to let go of your preconceived notions of who you are and what you do, and explore this question with openness.

Willow Creek saw that their community may not be eating out anymore, but was buying a ton of groceries. And yet, they were having a tough time getting the groceries they needed. Grocery shelves were often empty and crowds left many feeling unsafe.

Step Two

Ask: What is my customer’s fundamental care?

Step Two is about getting a sense of what your customer truly cares about. It’s about seeing what’s really at stake for them in the breakdowns you discovered in Step One.

Willow Creek saw that their customers had two fundamental cares. One was nutritious food: they cared about having access to wholesome fruits, meats, and veggies to feed their families at home. The other was safety: they cared about limiting their exposure to the virus in the procurement of that food.

Step Three

Ask: What unique skills / resources / network / inventory do I have at my disposal that could address the breakdowns and fundamental cares?

Step Three is about understanding how you are uniquely positioned to address the breakdowns and cares surfaced in Steps One and Two. What do you bring to the table that could be of service?

Willow Creek saw that as a fine dining restaurant with connections to local farmers, they were in a unique position to source great ingredients in large quantities direct from the source. They also had a loyal customer base to whom they could get the word out to about a new service. Lastly, they had a curb adjacent to a large parking lot, allowing for a “drive through” pattern.

Step Four

Ask: How does this all come together to present a new offer?

Within one week of restaurants shutting down, Willow Creek Restaurant converted to a grocery service. They began taking orders for customer grocery boxes. A customer could fill out an order form ahead of time for the fresh groceries they wanted. They would then pull their car up to the front of the store, where a Willow Creek server would drop the groceries straight to the trunk, thereby eliminating human contact. Simple. Easy. Safe. Convenient.

In other words, Willow Creek didn’t opt for a Strategy of Hope. They didn’t content themselves with doing more of the same. They challenged themselves to adopt a Strategy of Design, to re-align themselves with their customers’ needs and re-imagine their business to meet those needs in a powerful way.

A Call to Action

I don’t mean to diminish the dire straits that many find themselves in. Executing a Strategy of Design amidst the fears and anxieties ignited by this pandemic is no small feat. You may need some time to grieve “the way it was” — and you should take that time. But when you do feel ready, try this exercise on for size. Push yourself to imagine new offers that speak to yet-undiscovered fundamental cares. They may be temporary, or more permanent. Liberate yourself from a narrow view of what you were and lift your sights to see what you can be. In that way, we can find opportunity in the upheaval, a path forward in a moment of great uncertainty.


Kari Granger
Founder and CEO of The Granger Network.
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