In the business world, it’s common to hear about people seeing opportunities. Here’s a few examples I’ve stumbled across recently:
‘Where…the company’s previous owner saw obstacles, I saw an opportunity to transform an entire industry’
‘They saw an opportunity to harness new technology …to provide a fresh, very effective solution to an existing problem.’
‘You could go back to the beginning of E-Bay, where they saw an opportunity to connect people through launching a virtual flea market.’
Recognising opportunities like these is obviously crucial to business success. But is it right to say that these business people saw the opportunities? It’s tempting to think this is just meant figuratively. You don’t literally see opportunities like you see the hand in front of you face. Rather, you see opportunities in the figurative sense, like when you see someone’s point, or see a solution to a puzzle, or see where things are headed. When we speak figuratively about what we saw, we aren’t talking about what we’ve perceived, we’re just talking about what we’ve recognised as being the case. Most people would read the examples above in this figurative way: the business people recognised business opportunities but didn’t literally see them. But I think a literal reading shouldn’t be dismissed so lightly.
To see why, let’s put aside business decisions for a moment. Does it make sense to say that people (literally) see opportunities? An opportunity is a chance to do something – a possibility for action. And there’s a strong line of research in psychology and philosophy that suggests we do see possibilities for action. We can see a chair as offering an opportunity to sit, a muffin as offering an opportunity to eat or a tree as offering an opportunity to climb. We can see a bike as rideable, a ball as catchable or some lips as kissable. And none of this is meant figuratively – just as we see the muffin as brown and as squidgy we see it as edible. Our ability to see these opportunities helps us to get around our environment and to act in the right ways. Working out what you can and cannot do in a given situation would be extremely laborious and so the ability to see your options saves you a great deal of work.
Once you’re on board with the idea of (literally) seeing opportunities for action, is it such a stretch to think we can see business opportunities? The difference seems to be in what kinds of opportunity you’re seeing. Seeing opportunities to eat, climb or catch is one thing, but seeing opportunities to harness technology, transform industries or connect people is quite another. The actions implicated in the business opportunities are much more complex than the actions implicated in the ordinary examples. But how complex is too complex? Some of the ordinary cases studied in psychology look pretty darn complicated: think of a chess player’s ability to see an opportunity for a multi-stage attack. Complexity alone shouldn’t rule out the claim that we can perceive opportunities. This isn’t to say that recognising business opportunities is always perceptual – a lot of the time you have to explicitly work out that an opportunity is there. But in at least some cases business opportunities really are perceived.
This line of thought has an interesting result: the world of the business expert looks different to the world of the business novice. Looking at exactly the same situation, the expert and the novice will see different opportunities. Again, this fits neatly with what we already know about other kinds of expertise. The expert climber sees opportunities for climbing that the expert cannot. The same goes for the expert cricketer and their perception of catching opportunities, and the expert chess player and their perception of attacking opportunities. One of the hallmarks of expertise is the ability to see opportunities immediately without having to work out that they’re there. I think that business expertise is no different: business experience allows you to literally see opportunities that others can’t.