Interviews

When one thing leads to another: The sport of opportunity spotting

6 min read

02 August 2012

A business lesson from The Luck Habit author Douglas Miller: keep your eyes and ears open at all times.

Can you make the most out of an opportunity? It’s amazing what you can achieve when one thing leads to another. Here are five suggestions to seize the power of opportunity.

1. Sweat your existing products and services

iPrints are marketing a great product. They manufacture little strips that make your gloves touch-screen compatible – great if you want to use your iPhone on the ski slopes or try to do a stock take in the freezer without taking your gloves off. 

As a company that invents ‘things’, you might think that iPrint’s next step will be to invent the next ‘thing’. But that hasn’t stopped them working out how to make the most of what they already have. Soon they’ll be selling advertising space on the little strip – two sources of income from one product. 

Opportunity spotting in business isn’t just about inventing a great new product or service or seeing an untapped gap in the market – it’s about making the most of what you already do.

2. Opportunity-spotting is a contact sport

One reading of history tells us that great ideas come from individual ‘eureka’ moments. It’s easy to see why. Whether it’s Edison with the light-bulb or Fleming with penicillin, the act of creation (which is what opportunity-spotting actually is) is perceived historically as the domain of the ‘great man’. 

It’s the same in business, too. The deification of business leaders like Jack Welch, Richard Branson and Tamara Mellon has become a real phenomenon over the last thirty years. 

Too often we rely on the odd bright spark to see something no-one else can see and then to jump at it. But most opportunities get created not through a single spark but, like the oyster creating a pearl, through the accretion of layer upon layer of idea improvement from a group of people. It’s about encouraging collaboration – opportunity spotting is a contact sport.

3. Encourage the ‘piggy-backing’ of ideas

Let’s extend the ‘contact sport’ idea. Collaboration – yes. But also a willingness to not just accept each idea/opportunity at face value (or more commonly to instantly criticise it), but to improve it. 

A classic situation will be brainstorming. You’ll have one of your teams looking at new business opportunities with a flip chart or a white-board and aided by a (hopefully) good facilitator. There’s nothing wrong with that, but how often do you end up with a load of ideas thrown up on the board and very little development of each of them.

Learn to grapple with ideas (a version of psychological judo). Stretch them. Take a really good bit of the idea and develop it. Ask how someone who isn’t like you (a competitor?) would see the idea – what would they do with it?

4. Work ‘on the business’

You – you, at the top of your business – might be the biggest problem in identifying new opportunities or making your existing ones go further. 

Small business guru Michael Gerber talks about the way business owners and those near the top get clogged-up in process and bureaucracy and end up with little time to think about strategic development. He advises business leaders to work ‘on’ the business rather than ‘in’ the business – asking those who, what, why, when, where, and how questions that are the energising force in opportunity spotting. 

You’re not there to be another bureaucrat or semi-skilled typist. You’re there to maximise the full benefit from what you do now and to open up the opportunities of the future. 

We’ve all heard the phrase; ‘Don’t just sit there. Do something’. Writer Mark Brown suggests we should also see this another way: ‘Don’t just do something. Sit there.’ Don’t be doing stuff which others can do better than you. Work ‘on the business’. Take time to think.

5. Why not now?

It’s not for nothing that I once saw the word ‘begin’ described as the most energetic word in the English language. 2012 Olympic rower (and 1992 gold-medallist) Greg Searle has called his new autobiography ‘If not now, when’ because he could find a million and one reasons to delay coming out of retirement, but ultimately realised that if he didn’t do it now he never would. 

What happens when you start something? Suddenly you notice coincidences, serendipity. It’s that old saying writ large that once you take the lid off the tin you can never get it back on again. It’s not a reason to ignore the details – those crucial little things that really matter when you launch a product or service. But it is a healthy mindset to adopt if you want to avoid great opportunities being missed through corporate lethargy.

Douglas Miller is a writer, speaker and consulting trainer. His new book ‘The luck habit: what the luckiest people think, know and do and how it can change your life’ has just been published by Pearson Education.