Reopening your bookshop? You need OODA

Bookshops are currently overwhelmed with advice, support and well-meaning individuals offering ideas and 'tips' on what to do. A few months ago, booksellers might have been considering author events, boosting literacy and how to be greener. Now, the 'strategic space' within which their businesses operate has shrunk to the narrow window of: how do we re-open and keep open?

This is 'you have one job' territory.

Not everyone is comfortable using war metaphors to describe the fight against the Coronavirus, but as long as you don't see everything in those terms, metaphors can be extremely useful. So does the world of strategic military planning offer advice for bookshops?

Let me introduce you to the OODA loop.

You may already be familiar with this way of operating in situations of extreme uncertainty, where survival is not a given. There are plenty of blog posts and podcasts if you care to seek them out.

It's also a lot more nuanced than the odd Wikipedia article makes out, and over-simplifying it risks giving yourself a whole new layer of complexity and distraction right at the time when you have no capacity for either.

Nevertheless, it's powerful and can really help. So here goes.

OODA stands for 'Observe, Orient, Decide, Act'.

It's deceptively simple to get your head around. But like all 'simple' things, the devil is very much in the detail.

Step 1: Observe the situation. Which means gathering information, insight...and data. Traditional business metrics (such as daily sales) are no longer enough. You already know you need more daily sales. You need to track individual sales and experiences, the dynamics of your bookshop. Why did a specific customer buy? More importantly, why didn't they? In fact, why are customers coming in / not coming in? How do staff feel, and how do you feel?

The mindset here is curiosity. Just write it all down on a pad in the shop with a "Mmm, that's interesting" to every piece of information and insight you get. Pretend for the moment you are disconnected from your own business, try to ignore emotions and pre-judgments, and simply write it all down.

This is your 'bookseller intelligence network' (although you need a less sinister-sounding name. I prefer 'Team Bookshop'). The aim is to gather as much day-to-day input from customers, suppliers and staff as possible. Simply ask for it. It's a network that gathers key data points, identifies major problems, overcomes blind spots (we all have them), strips away the noise, and builds into a regular, high value stream of information. Every. Single. Day.

Step 2: Orient yourself and (honestly) face up to the information you've observed. Excessive hand sanitizing causing grumpiness? Maybe a staff member doesn't feel safe. Opening times, shop layout, delivery bottlenecks and in-store snafus are all to be expected. The word 'unprecedented' has become a cliché for a reason - so try to be as open minded as possible.

The mindset for this step is humility. Feedback can be unpleasant. It might come loaded with emotion. People are invested emotionally in their local bookshops like no other form of retail, and anger and frustration are often a function of how much people care and want you to succeed (OK, some people are just unpleasant, but having this attitude can be a very effective way of dealing with it).

In case you thought this step was hard enough, you also have to look for what you are doing that is working well. The biggest failures in the OODA process occur when you drop what's working in your hunt for problems to fix.

Step 3: Decide what matters to you. This is your bookshop, right? It's your business, your dream, your livelihood and it's also a succeed-or-fail business situation.

The mindset here is empathy. Your team has gathered intel, you've looked at what works and what doesn't, and presumably got a ton of feedback, much of it contradictory, some of it plain bonkers (it always amazes me that when you ask customers for feedback, the responses can get a little crazy). Some things you can change, some you can't (or don't want to). Make those decisions. Be confident that you are making those decisions based on the best information out there.

But you need to explain those decisions to everyone, because you want customers and staff to be on board and co-operate with potentially daily changes and difficult decisions.

My advice: keep a simple log on a blackboard, or a sheet pinned somewhere prominent keeping a running update of where the business is, and key decisions made. If customers complain about sanitization, but you need it to allow staff to feel safe, then (robustly but respectfully) explain why it needs to stay, and thank customers for their understanding. And then get more feedback. Respect the feedback, but own the decision.

It is never easy - but way, way easier - to make tough or awkward decisions when everyone feels they have been listened to and respected. One grim reality of the economic crisis is that redundancies are going to be inevitable in most bookshops. There is a legal procedure to follow when making staff redundant, and - if you look closely - that procedure includes keeping people in the loop, consulting them for input and explaining your reasons. Sound familiar?

Step 4: Act - or all is dust. And the whole team needs to act together.

The mindset here is leadership. Have confidence that you are making good decisions, but also have confidence that inevitable mistakes will yield more feedback, which begins the process all over again.

I visited my local bookshop - Mostly Books - earlier today. The new way of working is obviously not easy, but you could tell that the team was engaged, customers were sharing feedback, and business was definitely going through the till. They are already thinking of tweaks and changes - and lurking behind all of this is a change of rules, or the return of lockdown, or a hundred other things that might change in the weeks and months ahead.

In situations of extreme uncertainty, the OODA loop can be cycled through several times a day. Once a day is probably enough, at least until things settle down.

And one final thought.

The OODA concept was developed by a subversive, crotchety and independent-thinking ex-US Air Force pilot who had no time for military bigwigs and found himself discriminated against throughout his career. He had little time for airs and graces, he just needed stuff that worked for people placed in harm's way.

His name was John Boyd. He would have recognised the uncertainty, the risk and danger on what is admittedly a very different frontline than he experienced in his lifetime. I would love to think he would have felt right at home amongst the independent-minded retailers developing strategies to succeed on the High Street.

Mark Thornton was an independent bookseller for 11 years, and is now a retail technology consultant and a Bookshop Mentor with the Unwin Charitable Trust. He co-ordinates the #UCTmentor bookseller Twitter chat.