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100 Restless Nights and the Return to Joy: Coping with Our Own Swiss Family Robinson Ordeal (Part 1)

August 11, 2020
Captain’s Log 8.11.2020
The reports of the coming storm were impossible to ignore. We hoped we would be spared. We had no choice but to stay onboard our small but sturdy ship. There was nowhere else safe to go.

It’s been 143 days since this all began. March 12th was my last dinner inside an actual restaurant. It was in Los Angeles. Each time one of us got up for a restroom break from our long, conversation-filled dinner in the very crowded, fun and noisy Del Rae restaurant, we’d come back with more news streaming on the TV in the bar. NBA player contracts COVID-19. NBA season cancelled. NCAA tournament will be played without fans.

The storm has arrived. These were the first gusts.

The next day we traveled to San Diego by car in a torrential downpour, almost metaphorical. We drove past a cruise ship being offloaded of passengers for quarantine at the San Diego Naval Base. It’s weird watching the news being played out in front of you in real life.

The clouds were turning darker, the winds were increasing. Our ship was beginning to pitch and roll. We had reports of the storm developing in places as far as away as China and Italy, and it sounded furious, but still theoretical … for us. That was no longer the case. It was arriving and it was beginning to look everything like the “storm of the century” being talked about.

We arrived at the airport and reluctantly turned in our rental car thinking it might be our only way home from San Diego to Ann Arbor. Just as we were boarding our Detroit bound flight, the President came on every monitor in the airport to declare a national emergency, announcing the suspension of flights from Europe. We held our breath as we passed by the monitor in our boarding line, just waiting for the declaration that domestic flights were also being suspended. Thankfully, that order did not come.

The storm was loud and intensifying.

We gathered key Menlo leaders on Monday morning, March 16th and decided on quick, decisive actions. Cuts in pay, cuts in hours, all hands on-deck for current clients and the search for new ones. Basic operations must continue. Prudent marketing activities would still make sense. Later that day we gathered the whole team. We shared the news. We told them this was too big for us to handle by ourselves. We would do what we could to save the company.

Our little ship, Menlo Innovations, was now being thrashed about in a storm that felt global in nature, not a local one that would soon pass and yield sunny skies the next day.

A week later we were all sent home … 100% remote, by Governor’s order. Only a designated few can enter for operations essential to the business. We were as well prepared as we could be, but the swiftness of the actions that followed were breathtaking.

We hit the shoal and we were tossed about inside the humble ship that had been our haven for so long. It broke wide open but held together and we were now stranded but safe. Water was in places it had never been before, and it felt for a moment like pure mayhem, but we could see that we survived and would live to see another day.
a shipwrecked boat on the crest of a beach

Our first few days involved re-establishing our basic rituals. It gave us a small sense of normalcy as the shock of events set in. There was great comfort in the classic Menlo practices of standup, pairing, planning game, resource planning, and story-card driven development. Of course, it was all virtual now, all electronic. We’d NEVER worked this way before, pieces and parts yes, but not 100% this way every day on every project … but it was working. We were getting actual work done, we were delivering value. The team was starting to be playful. Laughter was in the “room”. Maybe we’d be OK.

We assessed the damage, gathered as many supplies as we could, and lashed together a tiny raft and began ferrying equipment to our new home, a seemingly uninhabited island in the middle of only-God-knows-where. We were safe, alive, and once again had solid ground under our feet.

As the weeks wore on, we learned how to close new deals, completely remotely. We learned how to virtualize our critically important High-Tech Anthropology® practice of observing users in their native environment in order to fully understand the essential problems that needed solving. Everything was starting to feel normal, albeit a very different kind of normal. Business had dropped dramatically. One of our most exciting new customers asked us to finish out Phase 1 and cancel Phases 2 and 3 (the biggest phases). This was one of the largest automotive companies in the world, and they asked us to trim less than $400(!) out of the budget to complete Phase 1. Oh my.

We applied for our PPP loan and were approved immediately. The cash arrived a couple of weeks later and we were able to restore everyone to full pay and full hours for at least eight weeks. What a blessing. We still didn’t have enough work for everyone, but we could double down on marketing efforts and put in a ton of time on professional development. This included reading books and writing up our thoughts, attending online conferences and running many experiments. One virtual conference I attended was Patrick Lencioni’s #EmergeStronger conference. He made a simple analysis of the situation: the companies that survive this storm will emerge in one of two ways … stronger or weaker. He and his team spent three two hours sessions on consecutive days giving insights on how to emerge stronger. It was a good reminder of the need for positive spirit & energy, frequent communication, openness, vulnerability, transparency, and authenticity.

My sleep was disturbed for at least the first 100 days of this storm as I kept running this maze in my head, looking for the cheese. There was no cheese as far as I could tell. Yet, there were signs of progress and reasons for optimism. We were closing deals, small ones for now. We were getting creative. We were asking for help from our friends for introductions to their friends. The team was reestablishing ambitious goals and ones we could accomplish together.

We survived the initial storm, however, we would need something more to sustain hope for what looked like a long stay on our remote island home.
Continued in Part 2.
Photo credit: "2016-SalmonCreek-VernaShipwreck-110616-5550" by jim.noonan is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/