Experimentation, iteration and improvisational change are all the rage in today’s dynamic business environments. But when evaluating new business opportunities, there’s a paradoxical tension between strategic focus and flexibility that can define or break your business.
Capturing new growth opportunities is fundamental to strategy, innovation and entrepreneurship. But how can managers best meet this challenge? With flexibility or focus? The answer, as it turns out, can be more complex and more crucial to a company’s success than previously thought. Our research on mature corporations, growing businesses and new ventures suggests a paradoxical tension between focus and flexibility that can define or break your business. In this article, we explore when and where to be focused and disciplined versus when to be flexible and opportunistic.
Experimentation is a familiar innovation tool, but some industry pundits suggest that planning rarely succeeds in dynamic environments; instead, they argue for a rapid cycle of experimentation and pivoting.1 Such an approach holds both intuitive and rational appeal in a world characterized by uncertainty, where the flow of opportunities is swift yet unpredictable, where market boundaries are shifting and where competitors are constantly changing. Given the new competitive environment that promotes change and flexibility, is the old strategic emphasis on focus less relevant? We argue it is not. In fact, we discovered in our interviews with a wide variety of managers that focus may be just as important as flexibility, and, counterintuitively, a company’s focus may even influence its flexibility and vice versa. (See “About the Research.”)
Opportunities Are Complex
Opportunities are more complex than people recognize. Few managers recognize that 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 particular problem chosen.2 Most books, articles and thought leaders studying opportunities focus heavily on opportunity execution — how to create value by developing a solution for customers. But research suggests that most innovation efforts move so quickly to identify a solution that they have to cycle back to figure out what problem they are actually solving.3
We found that opportunity selection appears to matter as much as opportunity execution, the place where most companies spend their time. More importantly, how you approach opportunity selection (whether with flexibility or with focus) has a critical impact on how successful you are at opportunity execution.