Resilience During the Pandemic: Pivoting from IPA, Bourbon and Gin to Hand Sanitizer

Beyond endangering the lives of several million people around the world, this pandemic has affected many aspects of our societies, including mental health, relationships, and work. Within this relatively dark scenario, we saw many outstanding stories of resilience. One that I found particularly fascinating is about breweries and distilleries pivoting to producing hand sanitizer. I attended this virtual session by the Fisher Leadership Initiative and then spoke to some of these managers to learn more.

Author Eric Ries defines a pivot as “a change in strategy without a change in vision.” Typically, companies pivot when they run an experiment, get feedback and change their product to better fit their market. Well, the pivot from IPA, bourbon, and gin to hand sanitizer is somewhat different.

It is not primarily driven by profit — it is mostly a way to join a collective battle. It is not a permanent change in direction — these companies are striving to return to what they do best. Nevertheless, much of what management research suggests about adaptation still applies.

While hand sanitizer might seem easy to make, revolutionizing a supply chain is difficult. You need to redeploy resources, often changing tasks, routines and processes. Typically, adapting to change is easier if you have a flexible organization. Companies had to embrace this flexibility, redesigning roles and delegating more. Greg Lehman of Watershed Distillery recalls how “We put people in roles they were not used to and told them you go figure it out.”

Naturally, the mismatch between tasks and skills creates opportunities for error. So, this process also requires tolerance for failure. Greg explains how he made that clear to his team: “We’re not going to do it perfect. […] As one part of the team makes a mistake, let’s see if we can pick them up.”

While flexibility helps adaptation, flexibility and coordination don’t work well together. Coordination is especially important when the market changes quickly, as it happened for hand sanitizer when institutions were trying to regulate the rapidly evolving situation.

Ryan Lang of Middle West Spirits recalls the turbulence of those first weeks: “Standards changed quickly […] every Monday it was something different.” You can increase coordination with more and better communication. While some criticize meetings, the need for more communication often means more meetings with salespeople, with the production team and with the top management team.

Jason Block of BrewDog USA describes how the situation required that they started having “more frequent leadership meetings, but shorter […] as that keeps us aligned.”

Before pivoting, companies need to convince stakeholders that pivoting makes sense. A key stakeholder is the team. You have to convince your employees that it is worth going through the stress of the pivot — this often requires a healthy degree of transparency. Ryan mentions how they were “more open about the discussions […] and try to make sure that tensions were understood.”

Similarly, Jason recalls how “consistent communication and transparency” were key in explaining people how change was necessary for the survival of the business.

Naturally, making hand sanitizer alone is unlikely to be lifesaving. However, companies that had the ability to adapt to the shock might have a higher chance to outlast this crisis. And besides helping the organization to navigate these stormy waters, this pivot might help them to learn other important lessons. Flexibility, delegation, failure tolerance, communication and transparency are practices that most companies might want to keep — even the waters are calm again.

Ultimately, this is a story of resilience, but also a story of purpose. Greg summarizes it perfectly:

“When we started Watershed, I had this vision that we would make a product […] that people line up around the block to get. When I was coming in that first Saturday we opened up for public sales of hand sanitizer, we had shut down traffic all the way around the block. […] Well, it’s hand sanitizer; it’s not bourbon — but we’re happy that we can help.”

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.