31 December 2014 - 4:45 pm

Leverage surprises, pivot, change hairstyles: another clunky metaphor

Problem-solving, to me, takes two main forms.

The first is the one we often talk about when we’re discussing enterprising capabilities – you identify a problem, you have an idea for a potential solution and, after a fashion, you make that idea happen. Problem solved.

But there’s another kind of problem-solving.

The kind of problem-solving that requires responding rapidly, positively, and effectively, to those “Shhhheeeeeeeeeeit! This calamitous thing’s just happened and we need to solve this problem RIGHT THIS MINUTE!” sorts of scenario.

I don’t like those sorts of situations. In a previous job at another higher education institution, part of my role was to work on the ‘Meet and Greet’ desk in the run-up to intro week, meeting and greeting newly-arrived international students as they made their way to their new place of study for the first time. I’m the first to admit I wasn’t really very good at this.  I used to panic too much.  Student arriving at 5pm on a Friday afternoon with no accommodation arranged? Arggghh.

(I still panic on occasion. Luckily, such occasions are less frequent now I’m older, wiser, and have an arsenal of coping techniques and response strategies at my disposal.)

Being able to do this kind of problem-solving is just as important as the first kind. Which is where we can learn much from the Business Model Canvas, Lean Canvas, and the works of Saras D Sarasvathy (there ain’t no original ideas in this ’ere blog post, folks. I’ve merely cobbled together a load of stuff from other people in the hope that at least some of it might resonate with you, dear reader).

But first, a story.

Once upon a time, there was a second-year English Language and Literature student named Anna Nibbs.  She had a dark brown bobbed haircut of which she was very proud.

Anna with chin-length bobbed hair

Saucy? Or just tipsy?

One day, the owner of a new hairdressing salon invited her to be a hair model.  Her hair was so thick and lustrous it would be perfect to demonstrate a particularly striking style he had in mind. The prospect of a free haircut, produced by the creative director, no less, of a new salon, was too much for this cash-strapped university student to resist, and so Anna agreed to let him cut her hair.

Now, as it happens, there were no mirrors in place when Anna had her hair cut. And so, she could not see what the hairdresser was doing. Now and again, whilst he was cutting away, he would offer a suggestion about how to progress the style and Anna, intrigued, happily agreed.

At last, the preliminary work was complete. There was still some tidying-up work to do, but Anna had lectures to attend, so the hairdresser agreed to complete the work later in the day. He showed her her new ‘look’ in a hand mirror.

It was asymmetrical.

It was jagged.

It was wedged.

It had something of the Phil Oakey about it.

(Google this one, folks, and you’ll have examples a-plenty, but I’m struggling to find a nice, reputable website to link to from this post.)

Anna took a sharp intake of breath, registering a small degree of surprise at the drastic nature of her changed appearance but – impressed by the evident skill and artistry required to produce such a haircut – nodded approval and let the hairdresser go his way, agreeing to see him later for the look to be finished.

It wasn’t until she was getting ready for her lectures that Anna realised the enormity of the change, the reality of the loss of her pride-and-joy bobbed hairstyle, and the truly impractical nature of her newly-coiffed barnet. She might have been drawn to Sheffield by its musical heritage, but she certainly wasn’t confident enough to emulate the lead singer of the Human League, and the weather conditions weren’t conducive to such a style remaining meticulously in place.

This was also 1999 – asymmetrical styles are ten-a-penny nowadays, but they weren’t back then. And besides, it just didn’t…look…right.

It was at that moment that she decided to wear a woolly hat to her lectures that day.

Anna with almost-shaven head

Shock! Horror! Hair gone!

As the day wore on, Anna grew more and more upset until, when she saw the hairdresser again, she was desperate to be rid of her new hairstyle. The only solution was clippers, number two guard, all over. The hairdresser himself was saddened by her request but, realising how unhappy she was, agreed to run the clippers over her head.

And so the deed was done.

Anna with short, red spiky hair

That’s more like it.

Anna took several days to come to terms with her impromptu buzz cut. But as time passed and her hair grew a little, she realised this new style offered her a wealth of new opportunities to play around with her appearance.

And thus, the next few years became of time of frequent colour changes and experimentations in products, styling techniques and accessories.

And, as it turned out, this was all huge fun.

But she never agreed to be a hair model ever again.

Okay, so why am I giving you a long-winded account of a long-past hair disaster?

Well, now it’s time to explore the Lemonade Principle.

One of the ideas from the world of entrepreneurial theory that I’m rather fond of is Sarasvathy’s Five Principles of Effectuation. The idea behind effectuation is that, rather than focusing on one defined goal, using a very specific set of means to achieve it (causation), effectual entrepreneurship focuses, as Sarasvathy suggests, “on using a set of evolving means to achieve new and different goals”.

You start taking action based on what you’ve actually got (your Bird in the Hand), you form networks and partnerships with others (build your Crazy Quilt), you only invest what you can absolutely afford to lose (Affordable Loss) and, once you’ve put all this together, you focus on activities within your control in order to steer your future towards your desired outcome (Pilot the Plane).

Amidst all these is the Lemonade Principle.

Lemonade is a nice, entrepreneurial sort of thing in a number of ways.  USE itself had its own lemonade stand during Freshers’ Week this year to illustrate the point.

Like the unofficial school break time tuck shop (USE did this too!), it’s a stereotypical example of children’s first forays into entrepreneurship and the world of work, as we see here and here (that last one complete with dubious choice of accompanying song, but never mind).

And besides, as the saying goes:

If you’re handed lemons, make lemonade!”

It’s about leveraging surprises; seeing unexpected changes and freak occurrences as opportunities, rather than barriers.

Kinda like what I did with my hair.

(Yeah, I know. I’m stretching the point somewhat.)

This principle is something I used not to think much about – when ‘teaching’ effectuation to students (inasmuch as it can be taught), I’m usually only seeing the class once, there’s a lot I’ll have been asked to cover by the lecturer I’m working with, there’s limited time, and so I’ll focus on the other Principles, using activities that allow those I’m teaching to very quickly grasp the concept of effectuation and come up with a business idea in an extremely limited timeframe, with signposting to additional resources for those who want to explore the topic further.

But recently I’ve been fleshing out my explorations of the Lemonade Principle. Because it’s important.  It’s pertinent to entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, students…and even researchers.

In USE, we’re also rather fond of the Business Model (BMC) and Lean Canvases, and use these in a variety of ways throughout both our teaching and our extracurricular and entrepreneurship activities.  The two canvases differ somewhat in their focuses, with BMC more geared towards strategic management, and the Lean adaptation channelled more towards startups, entrepreneurs, and the addressing or solving of a particular problem or ‘pain’ experienced by a customer.

Whatever their differences, central is the notion that your Value Propositions (the bundles and services that create value for each of your customer segments, or solve their problems) is not set in stone. It may change over time, in response to findings from your customer discovery activities, your market research, external environmental factors and so on. You may well find yourself having to leverage a fair few surprises!

You might iterate the development of your Value Proposition, or you might, based on the evidence in front of you, need to take it in another direction; in other words, ‘pivot’ it. This can even happen to long-established businesses and organisations.

Think this only happens in the commercial world? Nope.

Academic researchers sometimes find that their research findings are taking them in a direction they didn’t expect to go. But even if the outcomes of a research project are not what was originally anticipated, might they still be of some value? Is there still some learning that can be taken forward and built upon?

But before you even get to the stage of filling in your canvas, or undertaking your full-scale study, you need to validate what you’re going to explore further – whether that be your startup’s Unique Value Proposition or your finely-tuned research question.

Researchers do this through literature reviews, small-scale pilot studies, or trial experiments – testing initial assumptions to determine whether there is a genuine application or need for the research, before progressing further.

The ideas validation process undertaken by USE’s Pre-Start Programme participants is based on the exact same principle. How do you know your amazing idea is worth pursuing unless you test out your initial hypothesis?

During this validation stage, you may well find yourself having to pivot.

I’m not actually sure how to conclude this blog post. I’ve been so immersed in the long-winded middle bit of it that I appear to have run out of steam. But for me, I guess, the important takeaway from all this is that surprises – and problems – can be opportunities.

And making the most of opportunities, whenever or wherever they arise, is what enterprise is all about.

[PS. Sadly there is no photographic evidence of the asymmetrical haircut that is the subject of this piece.  Such was life pre-smartphone].

Leave a comment

  • About the author

    Anna Nibbs

    Howdy! I'm Anna, an Enterprise Education Developer, HEA Fellow, member of the National Enterprise Education Award-winning USE Academy team, and the first point-of-contact for academics in the Faculties of Arts & Humanities and Medicine, Dentistry & Health. I also teach on USE's "Making Ideas Happen" module. I'm passionate about learning and teaching, and empowering lecturers - and students - to be as enterprising as they can possibly be. Outside of work, I like to exercise, write, grow fruit and veg, drink tea and spend time with my children reading books, doing crafts and exploring. If you're an academic and you want to know more about embedding enterprise into your curriculum, visit our Enterprise Education website at: http://www.sheffield.ac.uk/enterprise-education