Space for Opportunities

I’m a planner. For most of my life, I was. And by that, I don’t mean I necessarily have detailed long-term plans. But when it comes to projects or my daily agenda, my instinct was always to start with a plan. Whatever the project is, there is nothing that will make me happier than a blank piece of paper or an empty table — a space to write down what and when I need to do to realize the project. Then, of course, I might add interfaces, resources, and other things that the plan depends on. And just like magic, without anything changed in the real world, I feel there’s a much higher chance the project would reach its desired goal.

This might all sound reasonable enough. What you need to know about me, though, is that under the label “Project,” I can easily host practically anything. From a one-week vacation abroad to a trip to Ikea, from packing my bag before I go to a photo-walk to finding the optimal bag to buy, from building a team to defining the work-plan for the upcoming year. My default mindset in any of those is: the better the plan — the better the results.

Now, this is not a post about how reality is stronger than any plan. It is not a post about how none of my plans ever got executed as it was defined. This is not a post about accepting the unknown or the things we cannot control. This is not a post about managing risks.

This is a post about leaving space for opportunities.

The First Law of Opportunities

Back in the 80s, I loved mixtapes. I have compiled dozens of mixtapes for myself and for my friends, first by recording tracks from local radio stations, and later by buying hundreds of albums and using them as raw material for my little creations. I loved the ability to take a few albums — each of them a creation by itself — and create a different, personal lineup of songs. I had total control, and the results were (if I may say so) great.

Then came Spotify (well, it took some time, but still). It was a dream! Now, I had millions of songs just a few clicks away, and I could listen to or use in my compilations whatever I wanted, literally. More choice and more control — what could be better? I soon realized the surprising answer is: less control.

One of Spotify’s great features is leaving space for surprises. With the infinite selection of music and the total control, you could have on what you listen to, Spotify introduced several ways for me to let go and listen to something I didn’t plan to. The Discover playlist, the Personal Daily Mixes, and above all the Taste Breakers playlist, introduce just the right level of unknown into the soundtrack of my life — they allow me to explore new territories without really planning to. Each unfamiliar song by an artist I don’t know is an opportunity. Some of them result in nothing, but few are real gems I gladly add to my library. If I had stuck with my hand-made playlists, I would never have found them.

The first law of opportunities is:

Opportunities cannot be planned. Opportunities can be planned for.

Look at your task list and at your agenda for today. It might be overpopulated with tasks beyond what you will be able to accomplish today, or it might be well-thought-of and balanced with just the right amount of time between meetings and other hard commitments. But did you plan to have space for unknown opportunities to emerge?

“Oh, some time off,” you might think. Well, not exactly. A space for opportunities is not a time planned with leisure as a goal, although leisure time if planned correctly, can also function as an opportunity space to explore and vice versa. Opportunity space is also not a buffer, which is often a space consumed by risks that materialize during your project or your day (like taking spare time between meetings because you might get stuck in traffic).

So what is this elusive space designed for opportunities? If you are rushing from one meeting to another and from one item in your task list to the next, you obviously don’t have much space to play with. But let’s say you do have a planned block of time in your daily agenda to slow down before you rush to your next task — something trivial like taking a coffee break. This by itself does not necessarily invite opportunities, so the question is, how you design this time to create a better setup for unexpected opportunities. If you have a coffee machine in your private office and your default choice is just fixing yourself a cup of coffee and drinking it alone in your office, the best you can hope for is having some time off. Now, imagine what can happen if you decide to take your coffee break elsewhere, for example, on another floor in your office building. The same space in your agenda immediately transforms into a space where unexpected things can happen. Any interaction with other people, especially if they are not the people you usually work with, can trigger an opportunity. It can affect your next task, the project you are working on, or your life goals. Of course, it might not. Most encounters might result in nothing (or just in having some good time). That is why opportunities cannot be planned. But we can, and should, plan the setup for such encounters to happen, even if most of them will not result in any breakthrough idea.

In the context of a project, planning for opportunities to emerge is more challenging. Projects are often tightly planned, or their setup tends to be fixed with less room for flexibility. Either you have strict deadlines or strict constraints like resources, the people you interact with, etc. Often, you are confined by both. This is precisely where some imagination and creativity are needed to create a setup that will allow even more creativity to flourish.

Even small changes to the physical working environment — changes that enable more unplanned interactions — can create better conditions for unexpected opportunities. But you can go further than that and leave some space for opportunities in the way you plan work, how you manage your resources, and even in the design of your product or service. None of this is trivial, especially in a business context, but the benefit of not just leaving a buffer for risks, but creating an intentional space for opportunities, can eventually lead to amazing innovation — one you cannot plan in advance in a super-controlled environment.

If you are designing a software-based service, adding an open interface for other services to use (even if you cannot imagine them now) could be the right setup for opportunities to emerge. Setting some time for people to work on side projects or features they invent (even if they will not find their way into the product eventually) might be just what is needed to keep the door open for unexpected innovation. The options are endless — you need to create the space in which opportunities can be seeded.

Once we managed to create a setup that promotes unexpected opportunities, the next step is… to use them!

The Second Law of Opportunities

Just like ideas in general, most opportunities remain unfulfilled. Creating the setup from which opportunities emerge is clearly a first, essential step. Once we come across an opportunity, however, we need to acknowledge it as such, and proactively follow it, or at least try doing so.

The second law of opportunities is:

Opportunities should be followed. At least some of them should.

That’s not as easy as it sounds. First, if we try to follow every apparent opportunity, we won’t be able to maintain any level of planning. Just like ideas, many opportunities will result in nothing or will deviate us from our goals. While it is perfectly OK to follow an opportunity that will eventually lead to nothing or that will make us change our goals, we need to apply some selectiveness when choosing which ones to follow.

The challenge is that many times, we misuse this necessary filtering step to dismiss practically all opportunities. Opportunities and risks are closely related. As positive as an opportunity may sound, we know that it may or may not be realized successfully. So, we must take into account the option of failure, and we must not jump on every road that seems like an opportunity — we need to be wise in the ones we choose, as long as we don’t avoid all of them.

And while we are at it, since opportunities are usually not planned, it is easy to dismiss them as “not being part of the plan.” Especially in a business environment, this deviation from the plan is often not taken lightly, which, again, is reasonable as long as it doesn’t automatically kill any option for realizing opportunities.

The Opportunity Flow

Combined together, the two laws of opportunities might result in something like that:

Have a plan in whatever degree and resolution you usually have, but leave in it explicit spaces for opportunities to occur. Provide the required setup for such opportunities to emerge.

Don’t automatically take each apparent opportunity you come across, but don’t dismiss it automatically either. Consider each opportunity in light of your goals, not just in light of the concrete plan. If you decide to take an opportunity (with its potential risks, of course), change the plan accordingly. And don’t forget to leave space for opportunities in the new revision of the plan.

A surprising opportunity can lead you to the same goal in a different path, or it can affect your goals. That’s what makes it surprising. That’s what makes it an opportunity!

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