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Opportunity favours the prepared manager

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 16th June 2018. Revised 16th November 2020.

6 min read

LionNeil Edward’s blog on why it’s best to ditch the marketing plan prompted some thoughts about parallels in people-management. In essence, Neil, of marketing agency The Marketing Eye, opined that plans can be rigid devices that are too often quickly out of date. Instead he suggests an approach of “repeatedly taking comprehensive, decisive and rapid action, ideally with innovation and surprise”.

In expanding the discussion into people-management, there’s little to disagree with, until one asks ‘how’? And ‘with what’? Surprise, innovation and action demand capability. But if you didn’t know you were going to do it and you’ve not planned for it, you’ll likely not be able to respond appropriately when the opportunity comes.

As the hyenas quipped sarcastically when Scar sang ‘Be Prepared’ in Disney’s The Lion King, “Yeah, we’ll be prepared….For what?”

So, your surprise attack on the market will swiftly fail. You might have been the one to spot the opportunity, but you’ve nothing to respond with. Strategy is absolutely essential. Plans are absolutely essential. But as Neil notes, not the sort that are commonly pushed.

To determine how to proceed, we need first to define both strategy and plan. Many folk describe a strategy as a set of required achievements and a plan as how those achievements are going to realised – the steps needed. Unfortunately, this is the straight-jacket that Neil describes. And in a modern business world, rigid strategy is indeed doomed. This form of strategising is out of date soon after it’s born.

Redefining a strategy as a purpose that guides everyone in the firm in everyday decision-making removes this straight-jacket. It defines what’s to be achieved but not exactly how. This purpose then guides managers towards some eventual improved state – even when this improved state is not precisely defined.

Suspension BridgeLet’s take bridge building to illustrate this. Imagine that your firm builds bridges. Traditionally there were three types – truss, beam and arch. In the late seventeenth century bridge builders developed the cantilever. The Forth rail bridge is a good example of cantilever. Imagine that you’ve just mastered cantilever and are making good business with cantilever supply – indeed that’s today’s short-sighted purpose - when along comes someone who suggests that the roadway might be supported by cables. Indeed, they’ll likely come out to tender soon for just that design. But the knowledge and skills needed to engineer a suspension bridge and those required to engineer truss, beam, arch and cantilever are very different.

A sudden interest in suspension in an industry that supplies truss, beam, arch and cantilever is just the sort of opportunity that progressive bridge builders dream of.

Your firm is in bridge building. And your capability is in truss, beam, arch and cantilever. How do you convince a potential buyer that you can build a suspension bridge? You don’t speak the suspension language. And on questioning by the potential client, your limitations would become clear.

So, what strategy do you need to be ready for oportunity? What should your plans be to be prepared for such an event?

To predict the future of your business, and hence know the capability that you’ll need, you need to keep close to those at the leading edge of the technology, to the thought leaders – and that’s not just the market leaders, for they might themselves be dinosaurs.

Generally, academia is anything up to 20 years ahead of real-world implementation. So, you need to keep close to university research. University research will not tell exactly which technologies to back, but it will likely show the skills, knowledge and other elements of capability that you’ll need in order to exploit opportunities.

You might not yet know what the opportunities will bring, but your firm will be ready. So, when your leader sings ‘Be Prepared’, you won’t be a hyena.

Now, back to reality. Here’s a real-world example. ATDI, a firm supplying business systems, foresaw in 2007 that its market was changing and it needed to lead major systems implementation – and not just behave as a specialist sub-contractor. It implemented a major upskilling programme to make itself ready. Two years after commencing the initiative, it got an opportunity to bid for a major contract to re-plan the radio spectrum in readiness for the 5G wireless standard. 5G was at that time just a research concept. The firm was ready and it won the business, with Qinetiq, a multi-billion-pound government contractor, as its specialist sub-contractor.

So, while Neil suggests that managers should rely on “instinct and short-term marketing sprints”, he does also suggest marketing as “short term sprints for a long race”. Suspension bridges and 5G spectrum planning were milestones at the end of sprints. And there were many earlier sprints leading up to those opportunities. Those sprints existed within a long-term trajectory and purpose that comes from a vision of the capability needed. You might not know precisely what the future holds but you will be able to envision the broad capabilities needed for the firm to achieve its purpose.

So, what to do?

First, state your firm’s purpose. There are various tools that TimelessTime uses for this. You will need to be steeped in the technology of your business and be close to academia. From this future state vision, you need to develop a whole-firm competency framework describing the firm now, and in its future state. The difference between now and then is the development your firm needs to be ready. But don’t expect precision – you’re looking for general direction.

The secret is in determining those necessary competencies, and with them, the technologies that your people will use.

Realising strategy is not planning exactly what to do – because beyond a few short sprints, you don’t know. It’s about developing a purpose, a broad strategy, a trajectory, and from this, a plan of the capability to be realised. Then you’re ready for almost anything.

So, paraphrasing Louis Pasteur, the famous scientist, “Opportunity favours the prepared mind” - and in business, opportunity favours the prepared manager.

Tune in to our upcoming webinars and attend our workshop in person or online to learn more about how to move your firm from a nineteenth century bridge builder to one able to exploit suspension bridge opportunities.