What HGTV can teach us about flipping complex systems wide

What HGTV can teach us about flipping complex systems tall

Are you a HGTV, DIY network, or home improvement blog fan? If so, you might not realize that you already know a lot about flipping complex systems.

Changemakers can learn a ton from renovators and house flippers. Whether they’re renovating an entire property or redoing just one room.

But first, a few definitions:

Flipping houses: Finding undervalued properties and changing them to improve intrinsic value in the marketplace. Often with the goal of selling them quickly for a profit. [Source: defined by me, adapted from businessdictionary.com]

System:  A combination of interacting elements organized to achieve one or more stated purposes. [Source: ISO/IEC/IEEE 15288]

Complex system:  A system with components and interconnections, interactions, or interdependencies that are difficult to describe, understand, predict, manage, design, or change. [Source: “Engineering Systems: Meeting Human Needs in a Complex Technological World” by Olivier L. de Weck, Daniel Roos, and Christopher L. Magee]

Flipping complex systems: Finding undervalued systems and changing them to improve value and outcomes. Profits not required. [Source: defined by me]

Here are ten lessons that house flipping shows can teach us about adding value in complex and uncertain environments.


1. Identify an undervalued asset

Flipping houses doesn’t mean buying the fanciest, most expensive house on the block. It’s about finding a space that has potential but that other people have overlooked. Could be because it seems too difficult to change, they can’t visualize how it could be, or they don’t know how to change it.

Flipping systems involves finding a system that’s underperforming, but has potential. One example could be a worthwhile cause that’s receiving less attention and resources because it’s too scary or not glamorous. Another example could be an underdog business or organization that serves an important group or is trying to solve an important problem.


2. Decide which part to change

There are varying degrees of flipping houses. You could overhaul the whole structure, spruce up the yard, update the electrical, redo the kitchen, or just remove that dated wallpaper and paint the walls.

In complex systems you also need to decide which part you’re going to change. Are you going for just a few surface level changes? Or are you looking to rebuild the core infrastructure? Try out a value framework if you’re not sure where to start.

Some examples could be changing a website, customer touchpoints, data management, business processes, or policies.


3. Create a vision

Most home design projects start with sketches showing what the final house or room could look like. Designers use drawings to gather feedback from the homeowners. They also use sketches to share ideas with contractors and carpenters.

In system flipping the vision is your to-be state. It helps stakeholders and team members understand where you’re trying to go so they can give you feedback or help you execute the vision.


4. Focus on infrastructure before adding cosmetic touches

After creating the vision, the next step in a HGTV makeover is often stripping everything down to the studs and making any architectural changes or fixes. Then each layer is built up until they reach the final design accents.

Sometimes house flippers work within architecture constraints but they always address fundamental safety and infrastructure problems before moving forward.

In complex systems, focusing on the cosmetic at the expense of infrastructure is also dangerous. Especially if that means attention and resources are diverted away from leaks, vulnerabilities, or design flaws that will cause a poor experience regardless of the color of the “paint.”

Avoiding the core problems could result in more expensive rework later. Some examples of core infrastructure problems could be security vulnerabilities, inability to complete basic tasks, gaps in business processes, safety issues, or aging technologies.


5. Be a weekend warrior or go full time

In HGTV shows, the projects range from quick afternoon projects, to weekend warrior changes, to multi-month overhauls. Sometimes people work on renovating houses as a full-time job. Other times they make updates in their spare time.

In complex systems you don’t have to rehaul the entire thing all at once. Maybe you work on one problem at a time through a series of design sprints. Maybe you assign a theme to each month or fiscal quarter. Maybe you volunteer in your free time or build a side hustle.

Regardless of the size of the work you’re trying to accomplish, there are always ways to break it down into smaller projects. You could do them sequentially or take breaks. Either way, you’ll want to create a roadmap to plan out the projects over time.

Flipping houses infographic open sans

6. Decide whether to DIY or contract, make or buy

When redoing a house, house flippers need to make decisions about applying sweat equity vs. hiring help to complete their projects. They also need to decide between customized pieces and what’s available in the stores.

Complex systems work the same way. What will you try to learn and do yourself vs. when will you hire or attract other professionals? Where will you decide to build custom solutions vs. purchase products from other companies?


7. Inspect beforehand but be ready for surprises

Most house purchases involve a home inspection but you’re never quite sure what you’ll see when you open up the walls or live in the building for a few weeks.

When working with complex systems the unexpected is a given. Do your due diligence ahead of time by reviewing the research that’s already been done, the data that’s been collected, and by talking to people who have experience in the system.

However, also be prepared for surprises. Prepare with some extra cash, a network of contacts, and a toolkit of frameworks for tackling problems as they come up. Having a plan B, C, or D doesn’t hurt.


8. Repurpose what you already have

Often seen reusing salvaged wood, preserving building facades, or refinishing old pieces of furniture, house flippers are good at adding value to existing materials.

In complex systems there’s rarely a need (or ability) to start completely from scratch. Look at the areas that are performing well and consider keeping those technologies, processes, team members, or ideas in the final outcome.


9. Be aware of when you need special training, licenses, or advice

There are plenty of DIY shows out there but other times when consulting with professionals is the best way to get a high-quality result and to stay safe.

Some good places to outsource are if you need special certifications, access, or experience. You should definitely lean towards outsourcing work to a professional in any area that is high risk and where personal data or safety could be at risk.


10. Enjoy the process

House flipping is mainly hard work and then a big reveal at the end. If you don’t enjoy the process then you’ll be miserable. HGTV shows are good about documenting the process, including the small wins and mini celebrations along the way. They also always reference back to what the house used to look like, to put the changes in perspective.

It’s the same with system flipping. It may take months or years to see a large impact so you need to enjoy the journey, the act of improving and creating something, and the knowledge that you’re making a difference.


I hope these ten lessons were helpful for inspiring some ideas for your own “fixer-upper” systems. Now you can say that your HGTV marathons are “research.”

How will you apply any of these lessons?


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