Recently I stumbled across an interview with actor Michael J. Fox on the television program Inside the Actors Studio. At one point he was asked which school subject was least useful to him, and he said “math.” The answer wasn't surprising — lots of people hate math — but his explanation is what caught my attention: “If two plus two equals four every time for everybody who does the problem,” he said, “then what good is it?”

What good, indeed. I'm sure math is useful to Fox, even if he uses it for nothing else than to tally donations to his foundation for research into Parkinson's disease. But his point is that as an actor he looks for tools that help him respond to conditions that are always changing. The very essence of acting is that the role changes depending on who is playing it, and although the script is the same, every performance is different from every other.

That got me thinking about how remodelers are often urged to make their businesses operate like math — such that they get the same answer no matter who does the problem. But the very strength of a system dedicated to one thing is also its weakness — it is only good for one thing. A surgeon who specializes in just one part of the anatomy can help a lot of people who have the same problem, but outside that small sphere of influence his value is limited. In most cases, of course, the advantages of a single-minded approach outweigh the disadvantages. But in some circumstances, keeping more options open is the wiser course.

A Hybrid Approach About the same time, I began to notice the term “hybrid” popping up in unfamiliar contexts. We are accustomed to hearing about hybrid animal breeds or varieties of flowers or garden vegetables — engineered combinations that result in a unique entity that is bigger, stronger, a particular color, or more resistant to disease. In short, something that is better adapted to the conditions for which it was created.

These days, though, the term “hybrid” is seemingly everywhere. Cycling enthusiasts can purchase hybrid models equipped for riding on both streets and mountain trails. Golfers, both amateurs and pros, play with hybrid clubs that offer a higher trajectory and better accuracy than the long irons and fairway woods they replace. And as gas prices continue to climb, an increasing number of automakers are introducing hybrid vehicles that operate both on gasoline and electricity, combining power and efficiency that neither fuel could achieve separately. Even gasoline is becoming a hybrid of distilled petroleum and bio-fuels like corn ethanol.

Adapting to Change That led me to think about remodelers who, faced with a slowdown, might find it useful to take a hybrid approach to business. Focusing on a single type of project or client might not work as well in a slower economy. Setting a high minimum target for job size, for example, excludes a portion of the market in small projects that might just serve to pull a company through a downturn. Declining handyman work or referring it to smaller companies may appear to be the best course in boom times, but in slower economies those small jobs might be worth keeping.

Every company's situation is different, of course. My point is merely that your marketplace is not a math problem. The ability to get the same answer every time opens some doors and closes many others. Maybe a hybrid business model is more useful because it would be better adapted to undertake small jobs as well as large jobs. It would not limit itself to business as usual, but would seek to meet every challenge with a unique solution that is better adapted to a changing marketplace.

I'm not suggesting an Orwellian “two plus two makes five.” But, as for an actor responding to a new role and a different audience, in a tight marketplace, having the flexibility to respond to changing circumstances might benefit your business more than offering a pat answer to every question.

Sal Alfano
Editorial Director