Looking to Move Forward? Think Like Richard Branson.

How avoiding these simple mental mistakes can open up new opportunities for development.

By Paul Farr

Let’s say you’re flying around the world to meet someone. At a layover, mechanical problems. You’re going to be late. What do you do?

Sir Richard Branson found himself in just this situation many years ago, and he very much did not want to be late. So he found a charter jet and asked the pilot what he’d take to fly the rest of the way. Then he asked how many passengers the jet held.

Simple math — divide the cost by the number of seats — and Branson walks back to the waiting room full of stranded passengers with an offer. Once he has enough takers to fill the plane, he’s on his way, back on schedule.
Of course, that particular solution seems obvious once you think of it. So why don’t more of us come up with creative solutions in everyday life? Well, in part it’s because our brains tend to make a few simple mistakes. First, we tend to focus only on what we can do ourselves. Second, we think in terms of extra steps we can take to get around a problem and back on our old path, rather than taking a new route. And third, we focus on the situation as it was before the problem occurred, not as it is.

Once he realized he was stranded, Branson’s first thought was not “how can I fix this?” but “who can help me fix this?” And his solution ended up involving not only several of his fellow passengers, but also a pilot he’d never even met.
Pooling resources is rarely a bad idea, and when you start thinking cooperatively, new doors open up. This is a strategy we’ve leveraged at Athens Area Habitat for Humanity in our approach to homebuilding. We’ve built over 80 homes here, and our approach now focuses on creating new neighborhoods, like the one at Carpenter’s Circle, because the impact of a new community is so much greater than the impact of the same number of individual homes built separately.

Another key to Branson’s insight is its radical simplicity. Problems can focus us inward. Branson looked outward and noticed the most obvious possible fact — he was at an airport. Airports are full of planes with pilots. Why not go find one?
To be as productive, effective, and efficient as possible, start with the simple and obvious. For Athens Habitat, that’s meant investing not only in new builds, but also in renovations of existing structures. Our work to repair abandoned multi-unit homes has led to the revival of entire blocks, such as the homes on Simmons Street or at the Foundation. Combined with our work adapting homes for the disabled, these rehab efforts have allowed us to serve many times the number of citizens who can be served by homebuilding projects alone.

The third key to Branson’s thinking is to consider new options. Most of us in that situation would be thinking how we could get the airline to get us on another flight. But Branson understood he wasn’t limited to that choice. Several years ago, Athens Habitat expanded its options by opening a thrift store. We now have two stores, an outlet at J&J Flea Market, and free pick-up service, a program that generates thousands of dollars every year to improve housing in our community.

So next time you’re wondering how to move forward, ask yourself three questions. Are there others who can benefit from a solution to this problem? If so, recruit them! Do we have to stay on the path we’re on? If not, look for a simpler path! Finally, what are our options now? Ideas that weren’t considered at the beginning can become good ideas as circumstances change, so always be ready to re-assess.

It’s a simple formula to follow. And if it can work for Richard Branson and for a local non-profit, chances are, it can work for you, too.