When you’re selling your business, it may seem that your problems are insurmountable. But sometimes, unexpected miracles happen, and things are better than they seem.
It’s not often that reading a business article gives me a religious experience.
But the story about the enzyme that eats plastic came close.
The enzyme comes from a bacteria discovered in a Japanese recycling plant that apparently just evolved into something that can digest plastic - and if they can produce it on an industrial scale (which they’re working on), it would mean 100% recyclable plastic, in a 100% sustainable process, and a possible solution to our plastic waste crisis.
It felt a little bit miraculous to me. Because sometimes I worry about the state of the world. The number of problems that just seem insurmountable. That creeping anxiety that maybe we’ve past the tipping point where we could do anything about it. That fear that as I grow older, I’m just going to be a witness to the ‘long, melancholic, withdrawing roar” of our society and our natural world.
But, as they say, hope spring eternal. Miraculously, some bacteria evolves in a pile of garbage across the world, slowing eating its way through plastic, as if to say ‘here I am, hope is not lost, let me help”.
The work we do at Hume Chalk is about change. As a facilitator, teacher and communications strategist, I work with people right at the very heart of the change process. The very essence of the Possibility Process (the work we do and the programs we teach) is the idea that there are solutions to every problem, that answers can be found, that hope will spring eternal.
But it’s not easy. One of our core pathways to change is selling your business. When business owners come to us, they are often in a state of uncertainty, even anxiety. They wonder things like: “what is my business even worth?”, “how long can this continue as is?”, “what do I need to change to make this sellable?”, “can I even turn this around?”.
There is often a sense that they are ‘stuck in a rut’ or are in their own ‘long, withdrawing roar’ from their peak potential that may have been years ago, or that creative answers lie elsewhere or, worse, are nowhere to be found.
That’s when we need to remember that lowly bacteria grinding away in a garbage heap. It’s a great lesson in hope, and possibility. Also a lesson in the idea that we don’t always know where the answer is going to come from!
That’s also what I love about this story. It has that “who knew?” sort of feel to it. That unexpected source of power, energy, hope.
In the book “The Possibility Process”, author and Hume Chalk founder Tana Plewes talks about tapping hidden assets in your organization, and links it to the idea that opportunities are everywhere.
It’s a very powerful idea once it starts to take hold, and an idea we try very hard to impart to our clients and course participants right away - the idea that answers to your biggest problems are already there and just need to be revealed.
And guess what? Selling a business is not just about getting it ready for sale as it currently exists. It’s much more exciting than that. Looking at a business through a lens of possibilities, we ask things like ‘what might it be worth?” or “what are hidden assets or hidden possibilities in this company that may make it worth more than you even dreamed of?” and “what is really possible here?”
Doesn’t that sound so much more exciting? We are actually looking for the outliers, the oddballs, the “Crazy Canaries” as Tana calls them. Like the canary in a coal mine, the outliers often tell us what might be lurking ahead - they are both an early warning signal, and a hidden gem.
The Crazy Canaries are the people in your organization who are seeing things that others aren’t seeing. They would be the one that noticed the bacteria eating away at the plastic. While everyone else was going about their day at that recycling plant, worried about efficiency, safety, human resources problems, everyday business, that person was watching and wondering. Maybe even experimenting. When you are selling your business, that’s the person to watch out for, to interview, to talk to. Find out what assets or potential assets are lurking in the ‘garbage’ of your everyday business processes.
Think about what it would be like as a CEO or business owner if you approached the potential sale of your business through that lens of possibility. What if there really were answers to all your problems? How would you find them? What if they are actually ‘hiding in plain sight’? What if we opened our minds or created situations that allowed new ideas to come in?
History is replete with examples of innovations and inventions not only arising out of necessity, but also out of a kind of open-minded possibilities based thinking, from the one rebel-like person who saw something others didn’t see.
Like Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweiz. In 1886, he noticed that mothers who had given birth attended by midwives had a much higher survival rate than women who had been attended by surgeons. At a time when many doctors still thought disease was spread by evil spirits or bad air, he was watching, wondering and experimenting. Like a good process scientist, a true Crazy Canary, he took clues from the system. He noticed that the surgeons would often move from the autopsy table directly to the maternity ward, while the midwives never went near the autopsy/surgical area.
From our modern mind, it just seems obvious (and really gross) that not washing their hands and instruments would bring on infection and death to subsequent patients, but put yourself in the minds of someone from the 1800’s - he seemed like a lunatic. History also records that he had a bit of an obnoxious personality and berated the physicians, (who obviously didn’t want to be seen as the source of the problem). So what happened?
Not a heck of lot. Ego and emotion crept in. Despite his demonstrated successes, no one believed him. He lost his job. Decades went by before sanitation and handwashing and infection control became an important part of health care. Hundreds of thousands of people continued to die. It is actually a sad, sad story. The opposite of possibility thinking. Ego, bureaucracy, fixed thinking, academia - they killed a lot of people in those decades.
What seems ‘in plain sight’ to us now, with over a century of hindsight, just wasn’t seen at the time.
Think of Dr. Alexander Fleming discovering penicillin from a mold that had grown on his petri dish - one of the greatest discoveries in modern medicine, just waiting for the right person to notice it, to watch, wonder and experiment. If his mind wasn’t open to possibilities, if he wasn’t a curious “crazy canary” scientist, he may have just dismissed it out of hand (I mean really, who’d have predicted that yucky mold had antibacterial properties. Another “who knew?” story). Like that bacteria eating away at the plastic in a lowly recycling plant in Japan, we just don’t know where the answers are going to come from.
Or Dr. Spencer from 3M inventing the sticky note from a glue experiment gone wrong. Think about it - if he didn’t have an open mind, if he wasn’t open to possibilities, he may have just thrown out that weak glue that allows the note to peel off so easily. What if emotion and ego had stepped in? What if 3M had told him to just stick to the stated goal of a strong glue. What if, like the surgeons in 1886, they had simply ignored or disparaged him?
When you’re selling your business, you’ll want to go through it with a fine tooth comb. Take a long look at everything. As a business owner or CEO you are likely juggling a lot of balls. When you start thinking of selling, you have to, as Tana says in The Possibility Process, “let the balls drop”. Get into an open minded state. See possibilities. Look around you for the outliers, the wacky ideas, the ideas that are just creeping into your consciousness. See what insights your people have to offer.
Tana goes on to say “The future of every business lies in its people. Bold ideas, practical know-how, skill mastery, critical analysis, judgement, and decision-making are intangible assets. Soft skills are difficult to convey and communicate, but don’t underestimate their power.”
Like Dr. Semmelweiz, look at what is actually going on. Not what your conditioned thinking, your ego, or your judgements are telling you, but what is actually happening. The systems, the interconnections - the good, the bad, and the ugly. Looking at it from that state of being, from a true “ego-is-dropped” open mind, the possibilities start to come forth.
When I can see the world that way, that’s when those creeping anxieties just go away. The world seems hopeful, like a place where seemingly insurmountable problems can actually be solved, a place where I can make a difference.
It seems like a place where miracles happen.
Diane Currie Sam has worked for over 25 years across multiple industries to help her clients to initiate massive growth in their businesses, secure millions of dollars in funding and sales contracts, and initiate change through the power of strategic storytelling. She is the chief communications strategist for Hume Chalk, and contributing columnist for Inc. Magazine. She has a Bachelor's of Science degree from the University of BC and a Masters of Arts in psychology from Trinity Western University.
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