Opportunities and threats do not exist

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 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 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 needed 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 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 What seems like a strength can fast become an outdated weakness.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 but 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 is a dangerous assumption to make.

Better, instead, to realise that whether we see something as an ‘opportunity’ or a ‘threat’ depends on how we choose to interpret it. And then everything that happens becomes a potential opportunity. We might wish that something hadn’t happened — but if it has then it is useful to be able to find the opportunities in the new situation and choose the one that is best for us.

This is another step towards using change to become stronger, becoming antifragile.

What ‘opportunities’ and ‘threats’ do you currently face? How could you turn the threats into opportunities? What do you see as your top strengths and weaknesses? How could you turn your weaknesses into strengths? And what might a new company (like AirBnb) do that would 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

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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