Here's how to use a military-style decision-making process, among other things.

Amy Wilkinson’s 2016 bestseller, “The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs,” detailed how some entrepreneurs succeed while so many others fail. It’s prescient information in our current climate. The skills identified by Wilkinson provide a blueprint for business leaders today navigating the choppy waters of the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s all especially fitting as businesses face the next burst of headwinds — shifting to a new normal as they return to the office, retail store or manufacturing floor.

In researching her book, Amy Wilkinson, CEO and founder of innovation firm Ingenuity, and a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business, built the largest data set on high-scale founders in the U.S. Simply put, there’s a lot that established businesses can learn from entrepreneurs.

“Entrepreneurs manage turbulence all the time,” she says. “The great ones develop certain skills to help them navigate. Some large legacy organizations are turning on a dime in the current crisis. They’ve proved they can do it, but there’s more they can learn from entrepreneurs.”

Such as?


1. Find the gap

The notion of “finding the gap” refers to spotting and capitalizing on opportunities that others miss. There are three ways to do this: 

Be a sunbird. Pick up an existing idea or solution from one place and reapply it somewhere else. There are many examples of companies large and small retooling to serve current needs during the pandemic. Beauty businesses Estee Lauder and L'oreal are today making hand sanitizer and apparel manufacturers Hanes and Jockey are producing masks, gowns, and protective equipment for healthcare workers. 

Be an architect. Look for an unmet need and devise an original solution. Some large companies are already doing this. One example, Apple and Google partnering over contract tracing technology.

Be an integrator. Combine seemingly disparate concepts to create brand new solutions. Think luxury SUVs, or in the current climate, home office solutions.


2. Drive for daylight

Entrepreneurs focus on the future realizing that they must eliminate distractions and set their sights on where they want to go in a fast-changing landscape. “Making a don’t do list is every bit as important as making a to-do list,” Wilkinson explains. In fact, a “don’t-do” list could be the most important list you make. Deciding what you will not do will help you prioritize and focus on what needs to be done. This is especially important in times of crisis when, say, employee reviews need to take a backseat to contingency planning. 

“Large companies often have a hard time with this,” says Wilkinson. “It doesn't matter if you’ve done certain things every year that have brought you success. You have to focus on what’s in front of you, not look in the rearview mirror. Big companies have to, at some level, let go of history so they can shape the future.” 

Of course, smaller companies, unencumbered by history, have the benefit of only looking forward.


3. Fly an OODA loop

Many entrepreneurs adopt the OODA loop approach to decision making, which has its roots in military strategy and is meant to enable flexible and fast decision making.

Here’s how it works:

  • Observe what’s happening. How are customers using your product or service? 

  • Orient your strategy around what you’ve learned

  • Decide how to improve your product or service 

  • Act to move quickly, implementing what you’ve learned and decided 


4. Fail wisely

Failing wisely is not the same thing as failing fast. “Failing wisely is about setting a failure ratio,” says Wilkinson. For example, if you try ten things, you might set a failure ratio of three. “Traditional businesses want to take all the risk out of doing business and strive for perfection, but if you’re at a zero ratio, meaning everything you try works, you’ve done nothing new.” Setting the ratio is only half the equation, she says. When experiments fail, companies must translate the learnings back into the business as fast as possible. 

“Failure has a sting, but we learn from it,” Wilkinson explains. “But not all failure is equal. What’s not ok is continuing to fail at the same thing because you didn’t learn from your mistakes.” 


5. Network minds

To solve multifaceted problems, entrepreneurs harness the brainpower of diverse individuals and build on each other’s ideas. Many successful entrepreneurs have established what Wilkinson calls “flash teams,” which are groups of people from across an organization who come together ad hoc to solve a specific problem. “Assembling people with diverse skills from across the business is a powerful, effective, and very focused way to solve problems.” 

In the current context, large businesses could set up several such teams to address how regular operations have been upended.


6. Gift small goods 

Entrepreneurs unleash generosity by helping others, often by sharing information, pitching in to complete a task, or opening opportunities to colleagues. Wilkinson says that entrepreneurs tend to communicate with employees more transparently than larger companies. Over communicating brings more certainty, which lessens anxiety in times of crisis. “You can’t know what’s going to happen months from now, but you can tell people what you know in that moment, and how that impacts them.” It’s important to shine a light on what you can control, even if it’s only 48 hours ahead, she says.

Like entrepreneurs, senior leaders at big companies should also communicate  — and just as important, listen — regularly to customers, especially during a crisis. “You will succeed more often if you learn through your customer network.”

The CODID-19 pandemic has forced all businesses to rethink, retool, and reimagine. That’s something that the most successful entrepreneurs are doing constantly. 

Our Leading Through Change series provides thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis.