How to seize the opportunity

The How To Issue: Success isn't always down to luck. Here's how to seize an opportunity when one arises.

by Frans Johansson
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

When we look at the world at large, as well as our personal lives, it's easy to believe that randomness happens.

Stocks rise and fall unpredictably; we get married to someone we met by chance. And yet, when it comes to business, we think we can plan our way to success. We often require extensive market analysis to justify our actions. We place a lot of emphasis and time on creating the right strategy.

Moreover, because we have become experts in our field, we think we know the rules for success.

Just six years ago, Nokia - at the time Europe's most recognised brand - was the expert on mobile phones. With 40% market share and 437 million items shipped in 2007, Nokia knew a thing or two about what made a successful mobile device: shape and size, ringtones and colours. The iPhone, released in June 2007, broke all the rules and forever changed the mobile phone market.

But Nokia wasn't alone in its thinking. Many more experts - other manufacturers such as Motorola and mobile analysts and pundits from Silicon Valley to the City - failed to anticipate Apple's impact on the mobile device industry. And nor was Nokia the first market leader to be unseated when the rules changed.

Regardless of your industry, the rules will change. The only constant is that randomness reigns, making success far less straightforward and far more uncertain.

Yet one thing is certain. You can stand apart by capturing the unexpected. Make unpredictability your friend because, if you don't, you may miss a chance opportunity that could be the turning point for your business or your career.

Take your eye off the ball


Although it may sound counter to everything we've been taught, taking your eye off the ball is a good thing. In an unpredictable world, not only can the rules change but they can change very quickly. If you don't take your eye off the ball, you will be pursuing a plan that can become outdated or one that is so obvious that your competitor is doing the same thing.

Starbucks as we know it would not have happened if Howard Schultz had not taken his eye off the ball. Then Starbucks's director of retail operations and marketing, Schultz went to Milan for an international housewares show.

On his walk from the hotel to the convention centre one morning, he noticed an espresso bar and decided to see what it was all about. He later tasted his first caffe latte and realised that Starbucks, then selling coffee equipment and coffee by the bag, had it all wrong - coffee was meant to be a communal experience.

This revelation prompted Schultz to take Starbucks down a new path.

Use intersectional thinking


In 2003, Lebanese-Australian designer Aheda Zanetti had an idea. She combined two very different concepts to create a piece of clothing that has had a profound impact on many women.

Observing the impracticality of wearing the Islamic hajib and veil to play sport, Zanetti began designing sportswear for Muslim women. After two years of experimenting, she had another insight. One outdoor activity dominated Australian culture - spending time on the beach. Zanetti tweaked her design again, creating a two-piece, head-to-toe swimsuit that became known as the burqini (a combination of burqa and bikini).

Today, the burqini is distributed worldwide and is worn by Muslim and non-Muslim women alike for modesty as well as for protection against the sun.

One of the remarkable things about the burqini is that it came unexpectedly out of Australia - not from the Middle East, where there are far more Muslim women. It was the exposure to Australia and beach culture that inspired Zanetti to see the possibility of combining two opposite concepts in one idea.

This willingness to combine ideas from diverse cultures, fields and disciplines is what I call intersectional thinking, and it is counterintuitive to what we know. We're so used to focusing on a speciality, becoming experts in one area or being surrounded by the familiar that we don't always keep an open mind to random and sometimes very unobvious ideas.

To change this, you can create a collision-prone environment at your office. It can be a physical space that enables people from across the company to cross paths and interact. You can also create diverse teams, bringing together people with different perspectives, education, experience and background.

Place many purposeful bets


Mikael Hed, CEO of Rovio. It took 51 games before Rovio struck gold with Angry BirdsPablo Picasso created over 50,000 works of art in his lifetime. Albert Einstein published hundreds of papers. The Virgin Group launched over 400 ventures. Rovio developed 51 games before it scored one of the best sellers of all time (now a franchise): Angry Birds.

What these successful individuals and companies had in common is that they placed many, many bets.

Even if most of the bets go nowhere, the success of even just one is enough. Many of Picasso's works are languishing in obscurity, nowhere near the genius level ascribed to his most famous works.

Einstein published papers that received no citations whatsoever. For little-known Finnish company Rovio, the wild success of just one game led to a valuation approaching £5.6bn in 2012.

Keep your bets as small as possible


Of course, placing many bets can become a drain on your resources, including time, money and reputation, so it's critical to keep them as small as possible.

Given the high failure rate of new ideas, products and ventures - Apple has a 90% failure rate in creating products, and venture capitalists plan on three out of four of their investments failing - smaller bets will allow you more chances to get lucky as well as more opportunity to iterate and refine your ideas.

One of the best examples of placing small bets is Icehotel, which started out as an idea to sell the winter. The man behind the idea, Yngve Bergqvist, began with an ice sculpture exhibit in a little town just shy of the Arctic Circle called Jukkasjarvi.

He brought in artists from Japan and created an exhibit that got some attention. The following year, his idea became a large 'igloo'.

By chance, the King of Sweden was visiting a town nearby and was persuaded to visit the igloo, which made the news. The next year, Bergqvist created a large expo hall entirely out of snow and featured objects hewn from ice, including an ice bar and a movie screen.

During the expo, some visitors asked if they could sleep inside overnight. The idea evolved into the Icehotel the next year. This winter, the 22nd Icehotel is under the construction.

Keep your eyes open to surprise


On the way to creating the Icehotel, Bergqvist not only made small bets, but he also took small steps. Each step was executed within a reasonable timeframe. After each step, he considered the results, the reactions and what could be improved.

YouTube started as a video-dating serviceThis is the reality of how great ideas happen. YouTube was not a $1.6bn idea in its first iteration. Pfizer started out developing Viagra as a heart medicine. Sometimes, the success of a bet is not exactly straightforward; sometimes, it's a surprising result. Are you willing to abandon the original idea in pursuit of a possibly better one?

YouTube started as a video-dating service. You upload a video; others can view your video.

Was it a great idea? Possibly, but it hadn't taken off for the founders. One night, two of them went to a party, did some filming and wanted to share the video, but couldn't. Meanwhile, the third founder was desperately looking for videos of Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction' from the US Super Bowl - but couldn't find it.

The three compared notes and realised they had the software that could solve both sides of the problem.

Double your effort


When it has become clear that a bet has taken off, then double your efforts with it - with money, time, reputation and other resources - to ensure it is successful in a big way. This plan is also highly likely to be unique, if arrived at by taking advantage of serendipity at every turn.

Pfizer, as mentioned, set out not to develop Viagra but rather a heart medicine for angina. But when the researchers noticed an anomaly while testing the drug - male subjects repeatedly asked for more of the drug, even though they showed no improvement in their heart condition - they looked more closely and saw a new possibility.

The researchers could have simply ignored this result and abandoned the drug for lack of results. But, instead, Pfizer doubled its efforts and released the blockbuster drug.

The fastest-selling drug ever, Viagra created a new category of drugs that many competitors tried to replicate and catapulted a small, little-known company into one of the top pharmaceutical firms in the world.

Just put it out there


If you remember one thing about seizing opportunity in an unpredictable world, it's simply this: do something, do anything and put it out there, otherwise you're not giving it a chance to be successful, to be influenced by random forces or to create a complex force of its own.

Take Stephenie Meyer, who awoke from a vivid dream and began to write, having never written a book before. After two months of writing every day, she had a 498-page book about forbidden love, teenage angst and vampires. She did not share the book with anyone but her sister, who urged her to get it published.

Eventually, Meyer sent her manuscript to 15 agents. One expressed interest and signed her. The published book, Twilight, was one of the best sellers of all time, led to three sequels and movies.

After reading Meyer's saga, Erika Leonard James published an episodic Twilight fanfiction piece. This was eventually developed into Fifty Shades of Grey, the best-selling book of all time in the UK.

Now where would popular culture be today if neither of these authors had put their ideas out there?

- Frans Johansson is founder-CEO of the Medici Group. His book The Click Moment: Seizing opportunity in an unpredictable world is published by Portfolio Penguin at £14.99

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

I was hired to fix Uber’s toxic culture - and I did. Here’s ...

Harvard’s Frances Frei reveals how you know when your values have gone rotten, and what...

Social responsibility may no longer be a choice

Editorial: Having securitised businesses’ loans and paid their wage bills, it’s not inconceivable the government...

What went wrong at Wirecard

And how to stop it happening to you.

Leadership lessons from Jürgen Klopp

The Liverpool manager exemplifies ‘the long win’, based not on results but on clarity of...

How to get a grip on stress

Once a zebra escapes the lion's jaws, it goes back to grazing peacefully. There's a...

A leadership thought: Treat your colleagues like customers

One minute briefing: Create a platform where others can see their success, says AVEVA CEO...