When 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 at the time was undergoing a huge amount of change. Technologies were changing rapidly and so were customers’ priorities and needs. So it seemed to make sense to apply the well-known ‘SWOT’ analysis we had been taught on the MBA: to identify the Strengths and Weaknesses of the business and compare them against the emerging Opportunities and Threats in the marketplace.
The trouble was, the model just 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 those new technologies then they 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 did the same then this would become another ‘opportunity’ for us. The ‘strengths’ we supposedly had created 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 they would need tomorrow.
What I realised was that in 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 itself but on how we choose to respond. What seems like a strength can fast become an outdated weakness.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 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 — an assumption based on the way the world used to work. In a time of change that might no longer hold true.
Better, instead, to realise that whether we see something as an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ depends on how we choose to interpret it. Then everything becomes a potential opportunity of some kind. And what we then need to do is know how to find those opportunities and how to choose the way forward that is best for us.
What opportunities and threats do 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 an unexpected global pandemic) that would suddenly turn your ‘strengths’ into weaknesses?
Adapted from Inner Leadership: a framework and tools for building inspiration in times of change.
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