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

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 was needed yesterday was fast becoming a ball and chain that was holding the business back from delivering what would be needed tomorrow.

I realised that in a time of change, intrinsic 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 What seem to be strengths can fast become outdated weaknesses.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 instinctively call something an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’, without thinking it through, we are making an assumption that the world still works the way it used to. In a time of change that may no longer hold true.

‘Opportunities’ and ‘threats’ only exist in how we choose to respond to them. And that means, potentially, that everything that happens can become an opportunity to achieve something.

This is one more step to making us antifragile.

What are the current trends in your marketplace? Which seem to be opportunities and which threats? What do you think are your top strengths and weaknesses? What actions by you would turn the threats into opportunities? What actions by a competitor would turn your strengths into weaknesses? How can you create your biggest opportunity?

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

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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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