Capturing new growth opportunities is fundamental to strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship. These days, experimentation and improvisational change are in. But how should managers address the challenge? The answer, the authors argue, can be more complex and more crucial to a company’s success than previously thought. Their research on mature corporations, growing businesses and new ventures suggests a paradoxical tension between focus and flexibility that can define or break a business. Based on more than 150 interviews with managers at 30 companies in North America, Europe and Asia, the authors conclude that focus is still critical and may be just as important as flexibility. What’s more, they conclude that a company’s focus may influence its flexibility and vice versa.
There are two components to capturing a new business opportunity: opportunity selection and opportunity execution. Opportunity selection involves determining which customer problem to solve, whereas opportunity execution deals with solving the problem. The authors point out that most books, articles and thought leaders focus on opportunity execution — how to create value by developing solutions. But research suggests that innovation initiatives often move so quickly to identify a solution that the innovators have to cycle back to figure out which problem they are actually solving. The authors found that opportunity selection appears to matter as much as opportunity execution. More importantly, how managers approach opportunity selection (whether with flexibility or with focus) has a critical impact on how successful they are at opportunity execution.
The authors observed that managers and entrepreneurs tend to fall into two groups: opportunists and strategists. Opportunists rely on a less scripted and more flexible approach to opportunity selection, letting emergent customer inquiries shape opportunity selection. Strategists follow a different pattern. They constrain the selection of opportunities so that they pursue opportunities that are more likely to result in success, and they try to capture several opportunities in a row versus one in isolation. The authors found that companies that were more focused in opportunity selection were often more flexible in opportunity execution.