It is a truism of business, but things rarely go the way they are planned. In fact, getting managers to find new opportunities when things aren’t going as planned is a major challenge, especially in harder times. This is a question recently posed to me by one of my long-time clients, and we will be working on a solution to that question over the coming months.
There are really two parts to that question. The first pertains to opportunities, and the second to adversity. Let’s start with adversity. We first have to ask ourselves what the nature of the adversity is?
I was conducting a workshop on continuous improvement for a municipality and one of the groups claimed they were experiencing a considerable setback with one of their initiatives. The town had initiated a new garbage and recycling scheme, but the initial results weren’t as positive as originally anticipated. However, when we looked more closely at the situation, it turned out that what they were really experiencing were growing pains. They were facing obstacles and adversity of a temporary nature, if they could find a way to get their project back on track. This type of adversity is absolutely normal in any kind of project. You can’t get discouraged at the first setback, and must find out why your project is off track and then develop ways to rectify the situation.
A more fundamental kind of adversity pertains to the nature of the goals that have been set or to the situation in the wider environment. In the first instance, a company can have a goal to triple sales in one year in one of its product lines, but this may simply be unrealistic. If it ‘only’ doubles sales, is that a setback or adversity? On the other hand, if the economic situation is hard for everyone, simply staying at the same level as last year may be an accomplishment, especially as compared to competitors and other industries. Adversity is a relative concept. You have to define it according to your goals, the overall economy, competition, and your progress in implementing your plans.
As for opportunity, I define it as a temporary or fleeting conjunction of events and circumstances that, if properly exploited, can lead to significant benefits for the organization that exploits them. Opportunities don’t last forever; they require imagination and courage to take advantage of them.
The best means of finding such opportunities is to look for them systematically. You have to take the time to examine your situation as objectively as possible and to assess it for potential opportunities. Peter Drucker wrote one of the first books on systematically searching for and developing opportunities, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. One of the more surprising sources of innovation that Drucker noted is unexpected failures and unexpected successes. We can extend that logic and say that our strengths and weaknesses are often untapped sources of opportunity and innovation. But even beyond that, the successes, strengths, failures, and weaknesses of our competitors can also be extraordinary sources of innovation and opportunity.
For each of these particular instances, you can ask any number of questions that will get you on track to finding and exploiting opportunities. The initiative may require innovative approaches to products, services, or processes, but sometimes all it takes is a change of attitude.
Research In Motion has recently launched a new service called Mobile Fusion, which allows corporate IT departments to manage the security and functionality of mobile devices irrespective of their make. This exploits recent failures to maintain its dominance with the BlackBerry® and the PlayBook™. It also accepts the new dominance of other mobile platforms, the iPhone® and Android™ systems. We can’t tell how successful RIM will be with this new service, but at least they’re innovating to exploit their strength in security and system management of large fleets of devices, at the same time as it recognizes their weaknesses and failings and the successes of their main competitors, as well as what the market wants. This is the essence of opportunity, a fleeting conjunction of events and circumstances.
Here are some key diagnostic questions to develop opportunities in the midst of seeming or real adversity:
• Is this an unexpected failure or setback? What is its exact nature? How can we turn it into an opportunity?
• Is this an unexpected success? What is its exact nature? How can we build on it to turn it into a major successful initiative?
• Have our competitors been struggling? Alternatively, have they been having success? These can be signs of new market or competitive trends. How can we exploit these as opportunities?
• What are our particular strengths and our fundamental value proposition? How can we apply these strengths to turning these failures or successes into opportunities?
• How quickly can we move? What resources are required? Do we have the capabilities needed to move or must we acquire them in some way? Is there something we must stop doing in order to exploit this opportunity?
The most important thing to remember is that leadership is required, along with a systematic approach and a willingness to actively seek out and manage the identification and development of opportunities, despite any apparent or real adversity.
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