While I was still 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 sector was undergoing huge change: the technologies being used were changing rapidly and so were customers’ priorities. So 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 emerging 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. 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 ‘strengths’ we supposedly 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.
What I realised then was that, in a time of change, ‘opportunities’ and ‘threats’ do not exist and neither do ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’. Yes, change happens in the world. But whether that turns out to be an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ depends more on how we choose to respond than on the situation itself. What seems like a strength can fast become an outdated weakness. 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’ we are making an assumption based on the way the world used work. In a time of change that assumption may no longer hold true.
And when we realise that whether something is an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ depends mostly on how we choose to respond to it, then potentially everything becomes an opportunity — if we know how to find that opportunity.
What opportunities and threats you currently face? How could you turn the threats into opportunities? What do you think of as your top strengths and weaknesses? How could you turn your weaknesses into strengths? Is there a scenario (like a sudden unexpected pandemic) that would turn your ‘strengths’ into weaknesses?
Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.
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