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How do you spot an opportunity?


“Opportunity is often difficult to recognize; we usually expect it to beckon us with beepers and billboards.”

~William Arthur Ward

Assuming that you are comfortable with uncertainty and want to move ahead, how do you spot an opportunity to pursue?

You and I know that rarely will someone (or anyone for that matter) hand you a “golden” opportunity. If that were the case, it won’t be called an “golden” opportunity. In fact, it won’t even be called an “opportunity.” Opportunities do knock on your door but only in fairy tales. If you ever feel “entitled” for an opportunity, you are signing up today for a future disappointment.

In that sense, the title of this piece is misleading a bit because you typically don’t spot an opportunity – you create one.

Here are some ideas to consider to do just that:

#1. Look for gaps

There are gaps everywhere. And, in one of those gaps, you will find an opportunity ripe enough for picking.

If you are currently employed in an organization, the structure where you work is typically a set of nicely arranged boxes. Every box represents a department focusing on a particular set of activities within the organization. The boxes are connected so that the work flows between these different departments. Between these boxes are the “golden” gaps. In other words, between the departmental work is some more work that’s important but nobody is currently “owning” that work. This is your chance to take ownership of that work and fill the gap or seize the opportunity.

If you are just starting out, you should have friends who are working in an organization.

In both cases, if you have an open mind, you will observe gaps that exist between organizations because organizations cannot exist on their own and they need to talk to each other. Every ecosystem has gaps and hence opportunities.

You can also start noticing gaps that could be opportunities by listening to conversations where people are sharing their frustrations. The general temptation for you will be to join in hands with those that are complaining and voice your complaints too. Take that route and you will not only fail to notice gaps, you will lose precious time to focus on things that matter.

#2. Look for more responsibility

More responsibility will generally involve more work. What I am talking about is more about being accountable for bigger results. Just like the rich people get richer, the people who are accountable to produce bigger results are given more opportunities to produce even bigger results. This means you are automatically put in a vantage point to spot new opportunities.

The easiest way to increase your responsibility is to look for adjacent activities – what happens at the hand-off points. These questions should give a good clue to adjacent areas of work:

What happens before you start your work? And

What happens after you complete your work?

In other words, it’s about understanding the value chain that you are part of.

If you encroach (in a good way) adjacent areas gradually, soon you will be accountable for bigger results and hence have an opportunity see more opportunities.

#3. Look for bigger problems

Your general temptation may be to stay away from problems. If that’s true, you will surely stay far away from bigger problems. But, honestly, if you are not helping your company tackle a big enough problem, chances are that you may not be doing anything important. If you are not doing anything important, then chances are that you may not have visibility to spot new opportunities. The size of the opportunities are directly proportional to the size of the problems associated with them.

When many people stay away from a big problem, you need to buck the trend and go after it.

Look around and see what the “big problem” is around you. Try to find a way to get engaged to lead or be in the team that is tackling that problem.

The scope of the problem you are solving denotes the size of the playground within which you can spot an opportunity. Smaller the scope, smaller the area for you to work with to spot an opportunity.

#4. Look for knowledge arbitrage

Knowledge arbitrage is a term coined by Gary Hamel. In simple terms, it is a process of applying knowledge from one field in another field. Remember NetFlix for renting movies and the same way remember NetJets for renting corporate jets. How about Avelle for renting luxury handbags? Do you see the power of the knowledge arbitrage?

Go beyond your company, industry and/or trade. Look elsewhere in an unrelated field and see what’s working. See if you can apply that in your company, industry and/or trade.

#5. Look to listen

We touched upon this a bit in the earlier section, but it’s worth revisiting.

Yes, it seems simple, but most people don’t listen. Barry Grieder from Landmark Forum puts it nicely – “We don’t listen. Either we are talking or we are waiting to talk again.” When you actively listen with an open mind, you will start spotting opportunities sooner than later.

In general, it would be good to have a talk-listen ratio of 30-70. If you talk less, you will automatically listen more. You can also train yourself to listen more by simply putting this powerful phrase to use more frequently – “Tell me more…”

As you learn to spot or create new opportunities, be careful about the opportunity blind spot.

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