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 services company.
The industry was experiencing huge change, both in the technologies being used and the ways they were being applied, and the needs of the customer and the customer’s customers were also changing. It seemed to make sense to apply the well-known SWOT analysis tool we had been taught on the MBA: identifying the Opportunities and Threats in the marketplace and comparing them against the Strengths and Weakness of the business.
The trouble was, the model didn’t make sense — or rather, it just wasn’t useful. Yes, the shift from old technology to new technology was a threat to the existing business model. 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 if we built our own data centres then they would also become an opportunity. The supposed ‘strengths’ we had created in delivering old technologies were fast becoming an irrelevant weakness. And as the needs of our customers and their customers changed, so the ability to deliver what was needed yesterday was fast becoming a ball and chain that was holding us back from delivering what would be needed tomorrow.
What I discovered then was that in times of change, opportunities and threats do not exist. And neither do strengths and weaknesses.
Yes, there are changes in the marketplace. But whether these turn out to be ‘opportunities’ or ‘threats’ depends more on how we choose to respond than on the situation itself. Similarly, what seem to be ‘strengths’ can fast become outdated weaknesses. And even a complete lack of ability can become a strength if it allows us to leapfrog competitors and move faster: Airbnb, for example, owns no hotels but quickly became the world’s largest hotelier.
When we label something as an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ we are making an assumption that the world still works the way it used to. And in a time of change that may no longer be true.
‘Opportunities’ and ‘threats’ do not exist, except in how we choose to respond to them. And that means that, potentially, everything that happens can be an opportunity — if we choose the right way to respond.
What are the current trends in your marketplace? What seem to be the top opportunities and threats and your top three strengths and weaknesses? What actions would you need to take to turn the threats into opportunities? What actions might a competitor take to turn your strengths into weaknesses? Given where the market is going, what response by you will create your biggest opportunity?
Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.
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