Opportunities and threats do not exist

Person climbing a frozen waterfall

When I was fairly fresh out of business school I was asked to prepare a strategic business plan for a half billion dollar pan-European technology company.

The industry was undergoing huge change. The technologies were changing and so were the ways they were being used and so were the customer’s priorities. It seemed to make sense to apply the well-known SWOT analysis tool we had been taught on the MBA: to identify the Strengths and Weaknesses of the business and compare them against the Opportunities and Threats in the marketplace.

But the model just didn’t make sense — or rather, it wasn’t useful. Yes, the shift from old technology to new technology was a threat to the existing business. But if we moved fast to adopt the new technologies then it could also become an opportunity to upgrade old systems and beat competitors. The rise of cheaper remote programming centres that competitors were building in Ireland (and later in India) was a threat if we did nothing. But again, if we built our own data centres then they would become an opportunity. The supposed ‘strengths’ we had created in delivering old technologies were fast becoming an irrelevant weakness. And as the needs of customers changed, so the ability to deliver what they needed yesterday was fast becoming a ball and chain that was holding the business back from delivering what would be needed tomorrow.

In a time of change, I realised, opportunities and threats do not exist and neither do strengths and weaknesses. Yes, there are changes in the world. But whether they turn out to be ‘opportunities’ or ‘threats’ depends more on how we choose to respond than on the situation itself. What seem to be strengths can fast become outdated weaknesses. And even a complete lack of ability can become a strength if it enables us to leapfrog competitors: Airbnb, for example, owns no hotels but has quickly become the world’s largest hotelier.

When we automatically label something as an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’, without thinking through the details, we are making an assumption that the world still works the way it used to. In a time of change that may well not be true.

And when we realise that whether something is an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ depends mainly on how we choose to respond, then everything is potentially an opportunity — if we can find it.

This is another step towards using change to become stronger, becoming antifragile.

What opportunities and threats you currently face? What do you think are your top strengths and weaknesses? How could you turn the threats into opportunities? What strengths might become weaknesses? What is your biggest opportunity?

Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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Photo By Laurel F via StockPholio.net

2 Replies to “Opportunities and threats do not exist”

  1. I still find the SWOT model useful but not used alone. It has to be coupled with a market analysis (for instance with a Porter five forces or equivalent and upgraded and other tools). In a fast moving context with disruptive innovations it could be misleading as you pointed out.
    And yes a deep weakness can generate a strength – think about leapfrogging competition through superior innovation.
    Still answot is a solid framework to start the thought process.

    • Hi Pascal,
      Thanks for your comment.
      I agree the SWOT can be a useful framework to start the process, because it is familiar.
      But I still say that in a time of churning every single answer it produces could be a lie and will have to be checked against reality. SWOT is a way of identifying some of the issues to think about — but it won’t show us where our true opportunity lies.

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