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The entrepreneur's dilemma

options optionsLast week I spent time with two organisations that, on the surface, couldn’t be more different. One was a boutique luxury brand that you’ll find in top-end stores all around the world. The other was a social enterprise supporting adults with mental health difficulties in some of the UK’s most deprived neighbourhoods.

The one thing they have in common is that both organisations are full of entrepreneurial people, with a highly opportunistic approach to life.

So it’s no surprise that their biggest challenges are actually quite similar. Both CEOs described with great enthusiasm an almost overwhelming landscape of opportunities they wanted to explore. But both also talked about the problem of finding the time and resource to properly work on them, whilst keeping the wheels turning on the core business.

It’s a tension I see a lot in highly entrepreneurial leaders. They have a combination of energy, ambition and curiosity that creates a powerful driving force for growth, but it can also become a source of constant distraction, diluting focus and hampering progress.

If that sounds familiar, there are two techniques that can help. One is “strategic opportunism” and it’s a way of quickly filtering opportunities into ones you should look at now, and ones you should look at later or not at all. The other is “quick fire learning”, and it’s a way to rapidly test ideas, and quickly kill the ones that aren’t as promising as you’d hoped. Used together, these techniques will help focus your time on those projects that are most likely to pay off.

Both of these are big topics, so I’m going to devote the next two articles to them. But to kick off, here’s a quick test.

To become strategically opportunistic, you’ll need absolute clarity on three things: the purpose and scope of your organisation; your critical centres of expertise; and the markets that you want to own.

To become adept at quick fire learning, you’ll need two more things: an ability to identify the assumptions implicit within the opportunity itself; and an ability to tear out and rapidly prove or disprove those assumptions before you invest lots of time and money developing it.

So, on first inspection, do you understand each of those requirements, and how do you think your organisation stacks up against all five?

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