“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” ~ Albert Einstein
Entrepreneurs who own businesses also tend to own the obstacles, challenges and problems associated with those businesses as well. Luckily for most of us entrepreneurs, we are problem solvers at heart despite the fact that not all problems are created equally.
While some problems are seemingly insurmountable and won’t be resolved by any individual or organization (e.g. climate change, the current opioid epidemic, sustainable energy generation…etc.) there are a few tactics we can engage to help us identify and understand the opportunities that exist within the difficulties we face, which can drive innovation and positively impact the marketplace.
I worked for an employer that had a disastrous relationship with a unionized employee base that our entrepreneurial leader had to work through when past leaders failed miserably. Here are the tactics he and his leadership team used to transform those obstacles into opportunities.
1. Visualize the end, then reverse-engineer solutions.
The company was a regulated utility that over the years had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in state-mandated penalties resulting from poor customer service, sub-par performance metrics and delays in service outage restoration. A key reason for this situation was an adversarial relationship between senior management and the leadership of our customer-service technicians’ union that had deteriorated over several years.
Our then new-CEO had an informal closed-door meeting with the leader of the union where they went over the projected future revenue trend and penalty payments. It was grim. If things didn’t change, the company would be insolvent within 10 years. Our corporate boss was able to convince the union leader that their fates were joined as were the economic futures of their respective constituents.
That common ground allowed them to course correct, reverse the catastrophic trajectory they were traveling and entertain the possibility of collaboration going forward.
2. An impasse may require a complete reboot.
Perhaps the most critical outcome of that meeting with the union head was that our CEO was sensitized to some of the managerial personalities on the negotiation team that were obstacles to advancement.
As a result, he completely disbanded the corporate team that had been ineffectively negotiating with the union for years, and he reconstituted the managerial negotiation team with well-respected leaders and former union personnel who had advanced into corporate middle management positions.
This reboot tactic stunned all parties, but it effectively reframed the entire process for all involved.
3. Take a different perspective.
That reset at the negotiation table enabled both sides to see all of the issues they were considering in a new light, from new perspectives. My supervisor at the time was the newly-named lead corporate negotiator. Her refreshing approach to the situation inspired all parties, simply because she came to the situation with fresh eyes and ideas.
It also had a disarming effect that allowed for trust and empathy to spread into a situation that had previously been characterized by antagonism and animosity.
4. Affect what you can control.
Because my supervisor was able to empathize with the rank-and-file and consider the terms from the union’s perspective, she was able to identify more meaningful concessions that would resonate to the base without hurting the broader organization or shareholders.
To be clear, the management negotiation team could only propose a contract to the union negotiation team—it was ultimately up to the rank-and-file to adopt it. However, the aforementioned tactics resulted in a viable union proposal faster than ever in the company’s history as well as a single-ballot passage of the contract by the union membership.
Within the first year of the ratified union contract, all service metrics were surpassed and the company has not paid another service-related penalty in the years since.
While few entrepreneurs or start-ups will have to deal with labor contracts, cantankerous negotiators and disgruntled union members, if these tactics effectively transformed longstanding obstacles into opportunities within that instance—imagine what they might be able to help you achieve.