Think Like a Squirrel

Many books are devoted to the topic of turning established habits and thought patterns upside down to solve a problem or move an organization forward in a changing environment. Two popular titles are Sacred Cows Make the Best Burgers and Who Moved My Cheese? Their key point: Approach problems with an open mind free of preconceptions and negative assumptions.

Consider squirrels. Personally, I like them, but we have more in our backyard than we used to. I didn’t think much of it, though, especially since one year we had a population explosion of skunks. Once you’ve had an army of skunks take up residence, squirrels are no big deal. (FYI, lemon juice is far more effective at de-skunking a cat than tomato juice.)

Meanwhile, the birds we feed seemed to be eating more than usual. It turns out our “squirrel-proof” birdfeeder isn’t. A squirrel’s weight is supposed to pull the feeding windows closed, but one enterprising fellow perched on the branch above with his hind feet and grabbed seeds without triggering the closing mechanism. We didn’t know whether to applaud his ingenuity or shoo him away so our resident cardinal could have his breakfast.

Squirrels are innovative problem solvers. Instead of assuming the feeder was impregnable and going elsewhere, our visitor attacked it from a different angle and got the desired result.

To apply squirrel logic in your store, don’t rule out anything as a potential solution to a problem, no matter how improbable it seems. Begin by writing down the problem, which gives it a reality and focus that thinking about it doesn’t. Next, write down every ideal outcome and potential solution, from the practical to the ridiculous. Try to record at least 15 possible solutions, and don’t think about whether any would work. Then take a break. Come back and read your list again. Choose five solutions that seem the most logical and circle them. Pick out five that seem the most unrealistic and draw a box around those.

Next, pick out the one resolution that’s closest to your ideal fantasy, and on a new piece of paper, start to play “what if.” What if you did this? What would be the worst possible outcome? Write that down, as well as how you might deal with that outcome. Once you have even a hypothetical plan of action for the worst, the worst shouldn’t seem quite so fearful. And who says the worst would happen, anyway? Perhaps there will be a new and novel and profitable outcome instead.

Now, write down a small achievable step in the direction you want to go but that won’t destroy your business/marriage/bank account/sanity in the process.

A hypothetical example: You’ve made cuts in your ad budget (even though you know you shouldn’t), you’ve frozen salaries (including your own), you’ve cut back staff hours, reduced benefits, laid off a few employees, and still you’re carrying a bigger operation than business warrants. You’re making some sales, mainly to long standing clients who haven’t been terribly affected by the economy, but nothing like you were. Since you’re an upscale store with a lot of classic merchandise, you’re not attracting younger customers, so you fear it could be years before business returns to pre-recession levels.

What would happen if you closed your storefront and became a by-appointment-only salon? Or took your current business and reduced it to a small private salon at the rear of your store and transformed the rest of the space into a gallery of artsy, alternative jewelry and semi-precious gem sculptures and artifacts, all under $500?

Both ideas might seem crazy, but as you dissect them you can discover some merit. And you don’t have to go all the way with either one—you can reduce floor space and cut back to a mainly appointment salon but still be open for walk-in traffic at peak times. Or you could devote a section of the store to casual jewelry under $500 without giving it the entire floor.

If a hungry squirrel can hang upside down to adapt to an uncooperative birdfeeder, what can you do to adapt your business to conditions?

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