Meditation #7 Restoring the value of opportunity

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”

This quote is usually attributed to Seneca, but that is not entirely correct. It is neither from Seneca nor quoted correctly. It does however seem to be based on this quote from Seneca’s On Benefits, Book VII, I:

 “’The best wrestler,’ he would say, ‘is not he who has learned thoroughly all the tricks and twists of the art, which are seldom met with in actual wrestling, but he who has well and carefully trained himself in one or two of them, and watches keenly for an opportunity of practicing them.’” 

Seneca On Benefits, Book VII, I

Although the quote is written by Seneca it is not his own but the Cynic Demetrius. The gist seems similar: it makes no sense to learn and prepare for everything. The best, have learned some things deeply and is focussed on the opportunity to use this knowledge. There is however one key difference. The common version of the quote talks about preparation, which could also be interpreted as planning. The original quote does not indicate that preparations mean planning in the usual sequential form rather it indicates that it is better to have learned some standard actions and wait until the right time to do them occurs. 

This is not true only for ancient Greek and Roman wrestlers but also for the contemporary tech industry. We continuously hear of all the “unlucky” incidents: budget overruns and delays are common. The bigger the project the higher the probability of being afflicted by this bad luck. Bad luck comes in many forms: a subcontractor did not deliver on time and according to specification, an upgrade failed, a server crashed, data was deleted, the legacy code was more complicated than anticipated and unknown integrations were discovered. I have seen all these misfortunes and privately marveled at the ubiquity of bad luck in tech. Indeed, bad luck seems statistically prevalent. 

Conversely, when projects actually succeed it is usually not attributed to good luck but to good planning. This seems wrong given that the original quote has no such indication. While the idea that planning is the key to success is widespread it is particularly dangerous in the tech industry. 

Now let’s go back to Seneca’s insight. Preparation is always only half of the equation that predicts luck. However, the other half, opportunity, seems completely missing from any discussions of project success in current treatments of the subject.

The reason could be that preparation seems to lend itself better to structured approaches popular in academic and business books and articles. Planning can be broken down into phases, tasks, and predictable discrete units that can be submitted to templates and repetitions. It aligns with expectations of the corporate world’s logic since public and many private companies are run by boards that expect some level of preparation for the future. Publicly traded companies are measured on their predictability. This creates pressure for plans throughout the organization. We need a hiring plan, a financial plan, a development plan, etc. No one ever asks how to make sure to make the best of opportunity. 

Opportunity is much less amenable to the logic of the corporate world. Although it has its shining moment as the O in SWOT, this is really just a stepping stone to more preparation and planning. It is a nod to the acceptance of opportunity but not really a way to integrate it into governance. 

Opportunity cannot be predicted and hence not easily quantified or turned into KPIs and reports but it is still a fundamental part of how the world works. It is also something that you can be better or worse at cultivating. Since opportunity depends on a stochastic element, we need to look at how to engage with such unforeseen and unforeseeable contingencies. 

The following are important ways to identify opportunities at different levels.

Awareness – if we are unaware of what is going on around us we are never going to see any opportunities. The first step is to actually monitor what is going on. If you are at the level of a company this means monitoring the market, competitors, customers, and everything else that is directly or indirectly a key part of your environment. It also works at the level of the individual employee where it means looking for new tasks and jobs internally as well as externally. From the point of view of a project, anything that can affect the deliverables and plan should be monitored closely.  Monitoring the world around us is key to identifying opportunities and takes many forms. At a corporate level industry reports and competitor analyses are continuously done. Employees may survey job sites and LinkedIn and the project manager usually maintains a risk log. Bringing this front and center is the first step to increasing focus on opportunities. 

Mindset – based on the monitoring, anything that happens can be viewed differently. The focus is usually on the risks and mitigating them perhaps because this has the most immediate impact. But as the SWOT approach illuminates the other side of risk is opportunity. Spotting opportunities is therefore as much a question of mindset as of awareness. Unexpected contingencies will always carry opportunities. The difference between risks and opportunities is that working with risks usually focuses on how to maintain the status quo, and how eventualities should be kept from disturbing the plan. Conversely, opportunities will often require a bit of creative thinking to understand how a situation can be used. We rarely pursue an opportunity in order to continue doing the same but in order to do something different or differently.  

Probing – being able to spot the opportunities of the environment requires a way of validating them since perception can mislead. A potential opportunity needs to be probed in order to make sure that it is really the case. At the corporate level, the question could be whether the market is really preferring a particular feature as can be seen from product reviews and blogs. As an employee interested in doing data science it would be valuable to find out if there is a possibility of doing data science internally by asking around. As a project manager, there could be the potential to snap up a suddenly free internal resource if you hear about it in your network.  Spotting opportunities is not just passive monitoring but also continuous probing to find and validate them.

Now that we understand better the nature of opportunity we need to go back to the quote from the beginning.  

In order to fully appreciate the depth of the Seneca quote, we need to read what precedes it. The quote is not about wrestling. Rather it is about how to approach life. The quote is preceded by this passage:

“The cynic Demetrius, who in my opinion was a great man even if compared with the greatest philosophers, had an admirable saying about this, that one gained more by having a few wise precepts ready and in common use than by learning many without having them at hand. “

Seneca on Benefits, Book VII, I

“(..)that one gained more by having a few wise precepts ready and in common use than by learning many without having them at hand”, this is the key to success. Having only a few items prepared and looking for opportunities to practice them. 

How could such a few “wise precepts” look in the real world and how could that insight be used? This is highly contextual and where the secret sauce is. The point is that it is better to give up the idea that you can learn everything and be prepared for everything. Instead, focus on a few things and learn them well. These could be things that play to your abilities and interests. It could also be selected based on an assessment of what will happen often. For maximum effect, learn and train these and be ready to deploy them any time you spot an opportunity.