"Don't waste a perfectly good crisis, " is what I heard from a law firm managing partner whose firm has recently gone through some challenging times. It's not just a great lesson in optimism, it's important for us all to remember as we encounter and confront challenges – and identify the best ways to climb through them.
There is such a missed opportunity if we don't take the 30,000-foot view in a crisis, where the view and horizon are more expansive and brighter. Elevate above the crisis to see where the opportunities for change lie. Perhaps it's time to restructure: your team, responsibilities and accountability, your compensation system, other systems — such as marketing, business development, finance, technology.
"The idea starts with recognizing that the future is unpredictable, shaped by nonlinear changes and chance events—the 'opportunism' part. How you as a leader respond is the 'planned' part. Planned opportunism requires sensitivity to weak signals—early evidence of emerging trends from which it is possible to deduce important changes in demography, technology, customer tastes and needs, and economic, environmental, regulatory, and political forces. Attention to weak signals gives rise to fresh perspectives and nonlinear thinking, which help an organization imagine and plan for various plausible futures."
Every leader should work on developing an uncanny sensitivity to weak signals – they're endemic in our organizations. We lull ourselves into believing that our organization is immune to all that, we want to ignore the signals, and hope our firms and colleagues are copacetic. And then we're surprised and really disappointed when key employees depart, when major clients fire the firm, when financial markets tumble and lines of credit dry up – as examples.
Govindarajan defines planned opportunism:
" . . . a systematic process not only for recognizing impending changes and ascertaining what opportunities they may offer but for developing experiments to distill and scale up promising nonlinear business ideas. It accomplishes three exceptionally important things for the enterprise: (1) It creates a circulatory system for new ideas; (2) it develops the capacity to prioritize, investigate, and act on those ideas; and (3) it builds an adaptive culture that embraces continual change. It will enable your organization to be proactive rather than reactive. To be sure, planned opportunism can accommodate scenario planning and other conventional tools and cultural aspirations, such as a flatter organization and a more empowered workforce. But it is not just an event, an activity, or a tool. It is a discipline encompassing processes and behaviors across many functions that will strengthen resiliency and lead to growth."
This is all good, but it really requires a full-on reorg and a complete overhaul of firm leaders' thinking. If you take nothing away from this article other than, "Don't waste a perfectly good crisis," you'll be well on your way to better managing change and identifying the weak signals in your firm that you can conquer. Start there.
"Businesses and CEOs often don’t know how best to think about the future, much less to act on it. Although they rightly concede that it is unpredictable, they may think of it as a far-off point on the horizon—a reality they’ll deal with when the time comes. But the future is not a far-off point. Rather, it is like a software program that is continually updated: It arrives in daily doses that must be noticed and understood. Only by working toward the future day by day can your enterprise respond resiliently when it encounters nonlinear opportunities or, equally likely, menacing threats.
"Planned opportunism is a strategy for exerting some control over unpredictable circumstances before they occur. Of course, this involves one of life’s most persistent conundrums. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, 'We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses—one foot is on the horse called ‘fate,’ the other on the horse called ‘free will.’ And the question you have to ask every day is—which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it’s not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?'
Though Gilbert is writing about personal conduct, her metaphor applies equally well to organizations and their leaders. Across every activity a business must continually ask itself, 'Which horse is which?' The horse of free will can be steered, but the horse of fate cannot. Planned opportunism demands that leaders spend their energies and attention on the former.