Opportunities and threats do not exist

When I was 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 our customers’ priorities and needs. 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 just 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 India) was a ‘threat’ if we did nothing. But again, if we copied them then this would become an opportunity. 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 us back from delivering what those customers would need tomorrow.

What I realised then was that during a time of change, ‘opportunities’ and ‘threats’ do not exist. And neither do ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’.

Yes, change happens. But whether that turns out to be an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ depends not on the situation 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 What seems like a strength can fast become an outdated weakness.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.

Whenever we call something 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, this is dangerous.

Better, instead, to realise that whether something turns out to be an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ depends on how we choose to respond to the situation. Which means that everything that happens contains a potential opportunity. Yes, we might wish that something hadn’t happened — but if it has then we will find more inspiration to move forward if we accept it, look for the new opportunities that exist, and choose the one that is best for us. And if there’s a situation that hasn’t happened yet, that we want to avoid, then our opportunity lies in learning to act to prevent it from happening or to prepare for it and minimise the consequences if it does.

Either way, whether a situation turns out to be an opportunity or a threat lies not in the situation but in how we choose to respond.

Realising this is another step towards becoming antifragile and using change to become stronger.

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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Photo By Laurel F via StockPholio.net

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