“Expect change. Analyze the landscape. Take the opportunities. Stop being the chess piece; become the player. It’s your move.”
Spotting opportunities is a gift, an art, a knack. At least it seems that way to me. Studies show that people are motivated more by avoiding loss, than by pursuing gain. It goes right back to the part of our brain that’s hardwired to detect and avoid risk. Our biology rewards us when we have positive self-esteem, experience social affection, or finish a great workout. Of course, you must put yourself out there to get the rush of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins surging through your system. I wish there were a fifth chemical that made us feel great when we spotted a great opportunity, but alas, this isn’t the case.
When Opportunity Knocks
Decision making is key to seizing the day. I spend a lot of time in part one of this book, dwelling on the attributes, disciplines, and decision making skills required to be a successful visionary leader. The vast multitudes of managers, executives, and business owners either don’t have the knowledge and skill to make the call, or if they do, they lack the courage, conviction, and vision required to take hold of the opportunities that tumble into their laps. You have a choice. There is no way I can eliminate the fears and concerns associated with a glass half full view of the world. Only you can change that dynamic, or, if you are ready to execute, only you can sustain that winning mindset.
In the special operations world, we focus on precision but prepare for the sloppy and unpredictable reality of warfare. We spend huge amounts of money to gain certainty but rarely find confirmation of our assumptions when we get to the target. On one operation overseas, I took my SEAL platoon on multiple search missions looking for weapons stockpiles. We planned, prepared, studied, and then flew in at night or at dawn to raid neighborhoods when intelligence sources told us the bad guy’s hid weapons. One time, after failing yet again to find any weapons in people’s homes, I took my platoon out of the congested cluster of shanty homes on a ridgeline and down to a large open soccer field adjacent to a school. My communications guy called in the checklist code phrase for failure and requested helicopter extraction. As we waited in a perimeter, people began to flood the soccer field. Families for the most part and lots of kids, laughing and running all over the place.
As I kneeled there, contemplating all the effort wasted on another dry hole, one of my men, a highly talented individual who spoke five languages and would a few years later be decorated for his heroism during the Blackhawk down event in Somalia, approached me with a proposition. The kids, he said, were babbling about weapons and bullets in the school. He pointed to the one story brick complex behind me as he spoke. He suggested we investigate. I didn’t have authorization to search a school and with now hundreds of civilians surrounding our perimeter, my first instinct was to shoot down his idea. Then I changed my mind. I directed him to speak with a few adults to confirm the rumor and report back to me. An hour later the army was still busy transferring the cases of guns, grenades, and bullets from the school to their waiting helicopters. The kids were right. In the bright light if such a terrific find nobody questioned my decision to take down the school without authority to do so. It was all about the win.
Opportunity is all Around Us
It’s a sad truth that when disaster strikes opportunity abounds. It’s the circle of life to some extent. One person’s lost job is another’s new job offer. A natural calamity spawns reconstruction work for hundreds of small companies. This occurs all around us every day. Serial entrepreneurs live for adverse economic situations. They swoop down and buy distressed property, oversold stock, and seize opportunity in the vacuum created by people and companies too stunned and cowed by the negative event to take positive action. This goes back to my thoughts on risk perception from the last chapter. Emotional swings in the stock market, unrelated to the actual value of the underlying companies the stock represents, allows smart value investors to buy quality at a discount. The same thing happens in the real estate market, just with longer swing periods.
When I was a kid, we were taught that America was the land of opportunity. Our history studies included stories about settlers coming from other countries to start a new life. Suffering cold, and starvation to scratch out a little world all their own. To me, this seemed the recipe for advancement when you didn’t grow up rich. So, I kept my eyes open for opportunity. Another interesting truth is the way opportunity is almost manufactured by people blind to the possibilities pulsing all around them. These folks decline to invest in anything that isn’t a slam dunk certainty, leaving room for others to step in, regardless of the type of investment. They leave jobs because they aren’t “fulfilled” rather than staying longer, leveraging their position to build up a nest egg and allowing them time to create an audacious plan of action. A new business, a special school to achieve a key certification, or to just travel and take a break. Every situation, in and outside of employment, is a learning situation, an opportunity to become smarter, sharper, tougher. This form of opportunity is also valuable yet rarely seized upon.
The Opportunity Mindset
Here’s the million, or maybe billion dollar question. I described a few examples in the prior paragraphs, and I could go on and on, filling pages with examples and scenarios., but I won’t. It’s the old teach a person to fish rule. It’s far better for you to understand the mindset that enables you to remove your blindfold, than to specifically list opportunities for you. In my first business book, Be Nimble, I spent considerable time emphasizing the need to have humility, to be humble. This is a key to the opportunity mindset as well. If the formula stated earlier, risk equals opportunity, is true, then being humble and openminded helps you see the opportunities with a clear mind. The challenge for most people embracing the mindset is they go too far. Everything is now a valuable opportunity, and no risk is worth evaluating. The shift from an all fear and hesitation, all the time leader, into a crazy brave, shiny object chaser. As in most things prudence and moderation have a part to play here.
Being openminded to what opportunities may lay in the ashes isn’t the same as highly energized thrill seeking. Instead, it is a state of humble absorption. Soaking up the real and now without the past interfering with your perception of the potential opportunity. Prior education, awards, failures, traditions, processes, etc. must be pushed aside to allow for this pure observation and evaluation to occur. That’s why I refer to this as an opportunity mindset. If you can look beyond your hard wired brain and your lifetime of risk mitigation indoctrination, you have come halfway to being a successful opportunity hunter. The second half is establishing the humble mindset. Practice to make this new approach a habit. Make the habit a method you apply repeatedly until it becomes second nature to step up, see the opportunity, clear the baggage from your mind, and evaluate. Extraordinarily successful investors have years of experience practicing this system. Regardless of the investment type, practice shortens the feedback loop in the brain and soon these professionals are finding and processing opportunities as easily as breathing.
Vision vs Optimization
When I first entered the commercial business world the adversary was tradition. Tradition trumped thought. Tradition was the primary reason companies failed to innovate and the leaders of most companies were the keepers of the sacred flame not the lead disrupter and change agent. That has changed over time. Tradition wasn’t defeated by smart employees challenging the status quo, it was changed by competition from overseas and by the rapid intrusion of technology. Technology turned everything on its head and the rise of competent global competitors forced our economy to streamline, to optimize. Now, in my opinion, the rise of optimization as an end state, as a replacement for strategy and audacious leadership, is the new adversary. I doubt Rembrandt prepared to paint a masterpiece by first measuring and limiting the maximum amount of paint to be used on his project.
Optimization is a valuable management method when applied logically and appropriately. However, I feel that most highly optimized companies are dead in the water strategically. Polishing and sharpening to their heart’s delight while the universe changes all around them, and they, oblivious to the macro implications of these changes, happily swap leanness for vision. The vision thing, at the end of the day, is much more difficult to grasp and to pursue. It is not concrete. It is not easily measured. As a Lean Six Sigma Master Blackbelt, I understand the proper use of systems and process analysis, diagnosis, and the spirit of continuous improvement. But some things in nature and in business are not improved by linear reasoning and incremental adaptations. Some things, like butterflies, start as one thing and transform naturally into something completely different.
You are a leader. You should not be cowed by the philosophy of business optimization. Instead, you should understand and embrace optimization as a method to clean things up after you’ve shaken things up. Seeking, and then pursuing opportunity, is deliberately destructive and a threat to the status quo and those represented by the status quo. The enemy of optimization is chaos and change, especially visionary change. Visionary change is purposeful incitement of chaos, at least in the short run. You will be confronted by the new tradition, stability, security, and comfort is delivered not by dynamic leadership and vision, but by optimization. Your people will be fearful of your initiatives because they threaten their professional sense of meaning and purpose. They are invested in the now and are recognized for their contributions based on the current paradigm. This is normal and you must prepare for this inevitability. You will never convince everybody your opportunity is worth the self-inflicted chaos, but trust me, it is the only way to ensure the long term survival of your business. Be bold, look for opportunity everywhere, and be strong enough to seize those opportunities that make strategic sense. It’s called leadership.
Marty Strong is a CEO, Chief Strategy Officer, and the author of Be Nimble – How the Navy SEAL Mindset Wins on the Battlefield and in Business –www.martystrongbenimble.com