Why do we end up missing opportunities that look obvious in hindsight? Let’s take the case of Anita, a smart, hard-working manager. Anita goes about her busy workday, ticking things off her to-do list, with barely any time to look beyond next week. Then an email, a water cooler conversation, or a customer call triggers a thought. This thought could lead to a new opportunity that would have a long-term payoff. Anita promises herself to think about it later and turns to more pressing matters. She then gets tied up in her ever-growing immediate priorities. So, the idea of revisiting the opportunity languishes.
When Anita wonders why she can’t break the jinx and pursue opportunities that could have a long-term payoff, here’s what she says to herself, “Sure, I’d like to look for new opportunities, but where is the time? My routine is chock a block! Even if I do come across a promising opportunity, how do I know if it’s worth risking everything that I have right now?”
Then there are other times, when Anita is filled with the feeling of missing out: “I see people go after just the opportunity that I had spotted and watch them make it a huge success. Happens all the time. It’s so frustrating to think I once had the chance too and didn’t go after it.”
Do these thoughts sound familiar? Now imagine, what if Anita weren’t a person, but an organization instead—Anita, Inc.—that is too caught up in routines to notice opportunities. This organization, although productive and efficient, cannot justify risks and constantly finds itself losing its competitive position. Morale is understandably down and there’s cynicism about new opportunities—cynicism bordering on frustration—all around.
Neither Anita nor Anita, Inc. have to go on this way. How do you change this picture?
The answer, in both cases, lies in learning how to identify and pursue the right opportunities. The pursuit of opportunities essentially requires techniques that originate in an entrepreneurial mindset. Once we master such techniques, each one of us can apply them in our organizations and careers to unlock the potential of new opportunities.
Which brings us to one such technique: noticing gaps and connecting the dots.
Noticing Gaps and Connecting the Dots
Many of us can recall at least one story of a hidden opportunity in a seemingly hopeless situation. A great example is Kutol Products, a company that came out with a cleaning product. This product was a thick paste that was meant to treat filthy wallpaper. The product didn’t do particularly well, and the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. They, however, made an interesting observation. They noticed that schoolchildren were using the product to create Christmas ornaments and in arts and crafts projects. Fortunately, the company quickly ‘connected the dots’ and relaunched the product and targeted it at children, after removing the compound’s cleanser and adding colors and a fresh scent. The product went to become one the most iconic toys of all time – Play-Doh.
How can we become better at noticing gaps and connecting the dots? A commonly accepted view suggests that most of us cannot. Here is how the conventional narrative goes: The skill of noticing opportunities is a special gift only some people enjoy. These exceptional individuals are alert, mindful, and adept at noticing market imperfections. They just somehow see the opportunity. And then they have this amazing risk-taking ability that allows them to jump with both feet into the pursuit of that opportunity.
I propose we look at it differently. Let’s proceed under the assumption that all of us have some abilities and we need to figure out how to bring them to bear in pursuing opportunities. Which means engaging in the right behaviors to minimize opportunity blockers. In short, we use the abilities we have and fix those things we can.
One, develop access to information. If you have information, you will have some chance of noticing gaps. What does the market need? How is the need changing? What do competitors offer? What is missing? That’s how you look for gaps.
Two, make the time to pay attention to surprises. Don’t simply gloss over outliers. Why is this region showing good sales suddenly? What is this salesperson pitching that really works? How come orders for this service, and not the others, are surging? Any data that surprise you are worth paying attention to.
Three, stay prepared to act. Risk-taking doesn’t always have to be all-or-nothing affair. Often, a quick validation, a test run, a survey, or a prototype would do. The reason we don’t follow through with experimentation is not that it is risky. It’s just that we are not prepared for that small commitment.
So, there it is. A small adjustment to behaviors sets you on the path to seeing opportunities—developing access to information, making time for surprises, and staying open to tinkering! Do this over and over again until sniffing opportunity becomes second nature. That is when you would have mastered the first technique of opportunity pursuit: noticing gaps and connecting the dots.
The theme of the pursuit of opportunities has a universal appeal. Each one of us, whether in our personal or professional lives, is constantly thinking of opportunities that help improve the status quo. Getting people warmed up to the idea of successfully pursuing opportunities within an organization can have a big impact on its future.
That was one reason that we decided to organize a workshop on the ‘pursuit of opportunities’ for the leadership team at Harbinger Group. The timing couldn’t have been better, given that the company in the midst of a rapid growth and the environment in tech industry is changing fast too. So, the stated objective of the workshop was really to generate a menu of new techniques that we hope will transform how each one of us views and pursues opportunities. We came up with five such techniques.
Since this is obviously a very relevant discussion for most organizations, I thought it might be useful to share with the readers the techniques we explored. Hence this blog series. In subsequent blogs in this series, I’ll touch upon four more techniques for opportunity discovery and enactment. Watch this space for more!