“ Opportunity comes in over the transom. Too much planning can make you deaf to opportunity. Opportunity knocks, but it only knocks once. You have to be ready for the accident.”
Peter Drucker from the Forward to Finishing Well by Bob Buford
Are you able to hear opportunity when it knocks? Sadly, most people do not in large part because the opportunity arrives unannounced and perhaps even disguised as an interruption or a huge problem. Charles Swindoll once wrote, “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.” If we are not attuned to the subtle knock of opportunity we may miss out.
Peter Drucker’ s insight on opportunity quoted above is some of the wisest council on opportunity I have ever received. Opportunities can be like a rogue wave that appears suddenly from nowhere, throws everything temporarily into chaos, and then disappears just as suddenly as it came. Many of us have a tendency to get focused on a particular path of action and dismiss everything that doesn’t fit our plans as an interruption. Because we tend to be very process-focus, IT people can be among the worst at missing opportunity’s knock. Here are a few thoughts on how to help you and your organization stay tuned in to opportunity.
- 1. Plans should be written in pencil, not carved in stone.
It is easy to get so focused on plans and strategies that we loose sight of the original mission. I once heard a wonderful story about the young ruler who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his young wife. He became totally focused on the construction of this elaborate memorial to his deceased wife supervising every detail. As the project progressed, he became annoyed with a large box on the site that seemed to be in the way and have no purpose so he ordered the workmen to get rid of it. The box was his wife’s coffin. I don’t know if the story is true, but it illustrates the point. We can get so focused on the details of the journey that we loose sight of the destination.
In the IT world these plans sometimes take the form of “standards.” How many IT departments have missed opportunities or lost credibility because some new innovation didn’t fit with their established standards?
A number of years ago I was recruited to lead an organizational turnaround at one of the top US pharmaceutical companies. The head of IT had been fired as had a number of pharma CIOs during that time. Determined to avoid their fate, I began contacting colleagues at other companies to get insight for why so many IT leaders were loosing their jobs. Almost to a person, all related basically the same story. Pharmaceutical research was undergoing a transformation that was enabled by three new technologies, each of which required extensive use of IT. These three innovations, combinatorial chemistry, high-throughput screening and bioinformatics, all represented enormous opportunities for the IT organization but they also required “non-standard” technologies for that time, such as UNIX, and required scientists to assume a hybrid role that was half science and half programmer. These IT leaders simply couldn’t see the opportunity because of their focus on their existing plans.
We are seeing the same type of thing being played out today in the form of “consumerization” and the easy accessibility of cloud-based services. These innovations come with problems but they may also offer significant business opportunities. Be prepared to change your plans and to move quickly.
- 2. When opportunity knocks ask “What if?” before deciding whether to answer the door.
Every potential opportunity deserves some form of assessment. Pausing and asking “What if?” if the first step. Many things will be ruled out for good reasons but if the due diligence isn’t done, the opportunity may be missed forever. Overconfidence and false or outdated assumptions can easily bias us. Remember, several record companies rejected the Beatles because they believed that their style of music was on the way out. A little research would have revealed that they had a large and enthusiastic following in both Germany and the United Kingdom and dispelled the notion that their musical style was no longer relevant. Don’t let your ego or the fact that something hasn’t been done before blind you to a potential opportunity.
- 3. Be disciplined.
Attempting to respond to every potential opportunity is just as damaging as missing the good ones. Know when to say no. Becoming fragmented or overloading your organization with commitments can quickly destroy you. Small start-ups are the most vulnerable to over committing because they are afraid to say no to anything with the potential to generate revenue.
I am advising a very successful small company that has responded to almost every opportunity only to now find themselves overworked, unfocused and stressed out. My advice to them is to clarify their strategy based on their strengths and capabilities. They should only accept opportunities that fit within their “sweet spot.” Separately they should develop a business development function that is charged with objectively exploring and exploiting opportunities outside of their existing capabilities. These may take the form of new lines of business, strategic partnerships, collaborations or a number of other forms. The important thing for them is to be thoughtful and intentional. A little process and discipline will go a long way.
Finally, exploiting opportunities will likely involve a lot of work. Ann Landers said,” Opportunities are usually disguised as hard work so most people don’t recognize them.” People who successfully exploit opportunities are not afraid of hard work.
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