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Opportunity and the Unexpected

Opportunity lies hidden in the unexpected. Waiting in the recesses of the surprising, lingering in the openings of the unconventional and gathering outside the limitations of the predictable, there are amazing treasurers to be found. The issue for anyone pursuing opportunity is whether we actually recognize what the unexpected provides.  

Time and again, real opportunity appears as an anomaly. There is something out of place that captures our attention, something different that sparks wonder, and something unusual that captures our curiosity.  And therein often lies the difference between success and failure, between a venture that grows and one that falters, and maybe even between maintaining the status quo and altering the course of history. The issue is whether we seize on the anomaly.

An old adage advises to "expect the unexpected."  Most of the time, however, we don't. Most of the time we ignore the unexpected or shun it because it violates our assumptions, or goes against our preconceived notions, or interrupts our sales pitch, or gets in the way of our current job or work priority.

One of my favorite insights about opportunity and the unexpected comes from Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate in Physics.  He profoundly asked, "What did you discover that you did not set out to discover?"

Feynman seizes on the anomaly. He wants us to pay attention to the unexpected, to focus not on what we expect to find but on what we don't expect to find. He argues that it is in the unexpected that real learning takes place, that it is in the unexpected where we learn something valuable that we were not aware of previously. And in that discovery, we find solutions to problems, launch new products, open new markets, find better ways to meet customer needs, and innovate.

Examples abound.

Spence Silver, a chemist at 3M, was charged with developing a glue for a stronger adhesive. But he accidentally created a weaker adhesive. Instead of ignoring the unexpected, he became fascinated with the glue that would not stick. The result was the post-it note, one of 3M's most widely successful products.

Alexander Fleming was cleaning his laboratory and came upon a petrie dish with a bacteria that was not supposed to be there. Instead of discarding the dish, he became enamored of how it got there. In the process, he invented the first antibiotic, penicillin, and saved millions of lives.

George de Mestral was walking through a field when he acquired cockleburs on his socks.  Rather than just pull them off, he wondered why they stuck so easily to his clothing. As a result, he noticed the hook-and-loop arrangement of the cockleburs and created velcro.

They all paid attention to something they did not expect.  

Discovering the unexpected has led to opportunity for me. In the economic development organization that I ran in California, we competed for a major grant with the U. S. Department of State to train entrepreneurs in sixteen countries in North Africa and the Middle East. We prepared a detailed proposal in response to the State Department's Request for Proposal (RFP).  Before submitting the proposal, I met with the program manager in Washington DC to make sure that I understood the RFP as completely as possible. In the course of our meeting, she mentioned that the State Department wanted to assist women entrepreneurs in the region in some way.  This was unexpected to me since the RFP did not focus on women in particular but on entrepreneurs in the region generally. So, we added a special focus in our proposal to build a women's entrepreneurship network in the region and to conduct a series of entrepreneurship conferences specifically for women entrepreneurs. We won the proposal which resulted in a multi-million dollar contact over several years.  I am convinced we won that proposal because we discovered something that we did not set out to discover...and we responded to that discovery.  We paid attention to the anomaly.

So, to find opportunity in the unexpected, to discover something you did not set out to discover:

--Pay attention to the anomaly.  Identify what is unexpected and surprising, and then focus on it.

--Avoid preconceived notions. Approach customers, situations and problems with an open mind. Don't try to sell your concept or excuse the anomaly away. Try to understand.

--Consciously look and listen. Ask yourself, what am I really seeing? What am I really hearing? Seek the "why" behind the "what."

--Be curious. Get excited about what is really different and unusual. 

Opportunity follows where the unexpected intrudes.

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