When I was still fairly fresh out of business school I was asked to prepare a strategic business plan for a $500m pan-European information technology services company.
The industry at the time was undergoing a huge amount of change. Technologies were changing rapidly and so were customers’ needs and 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.
The trouble was, the model didn’t make sense — or rather, it wasn’t useful. Yes, the shift from old technologies to new was a ‘threat’ to the existing business model. But if we moved fast to adopt these new technologies then they could 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 copied them then this would become an opportunity for us. The ‘strengths’ we supposedly had in delivering old technologies were fast becoming an obsolete weakness. And as customers’ priorities 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 those customers would need 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. But whether it turns out to be an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ depends not on the situation itself but on how we choose to respond to the situation. What seems like a strength can fast become an outdated weakness.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 doesn’t own a single hotel and yet it has quickly become the world’s largest hotelier.
When we call something an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ we are making an assumption that the world still works the way it used to. In a time of change, this can be dangerous.
Better, instead, to realise that whether something is an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ depends on how we choose to respond. Which means that everything that happens contains a potential opportunity. Yes, we might wish that a situation hadn’t happened — but if it has (and we can’t change that) then we will find more passion and inspiration if we look for the opportunities in the new situation and choose the one that is best for us.
What are your top ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’? What ‘opportunities’ and ‘threats’ do you face? How could you turn the threats into opportunities? How could you turn your weaknesses into strengths? How might a rival turn your strengths into weaknesses?
Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.
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(And remember: you can’t learn to swim just by reading about swimming, you also need to do the practice.)