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Reframing Challenge as Opportunity – Does it Help Address Uncertainty?

So now that everyone is starting to emerge from the early January slump, we thought it was about time for some optimism. The theme of our blog this month is uncertainty, with a knowing nod to the complete lack of clarity surrounding everything to do with Brexit.

The proposal this week then – yes, we can expect some disruption and upheaval when the UK finally leaves the EU come the end of March. But isn’t it time the business community gave up its bewildered exasperation with the nonsensical political process, and did what business has always done? Namely, find a way to reshape considerable challenges as opportunity?

This kind of glass-half-full thinking has a long and illustrious tradition in business. Indeed, some would say it intrinsic to the entrepreneurial spirit itself, that those who succeed in enterprise are the can-doers, the go-getters, those who keep striving regardless of the odds stacked against them.

But does it work, and if so, how can it be harnessed to guide us when the challenge is an inability to plan effectively because we don’t know what is going to happen next?

First off, let’s look at the psychology of thinking positively in challenging situations. The thing about looking for the opportunities even when things get really tough is not that you can magically turn bad to good purely by applying mind over matter. It is that positive thinking helps to avoid anxiety and panic, which means you think with more clarity and are therefore inclined to make better decisions.

If all you focus on in difficult circumstances is the likelihood of failure, your mindset becomes reactionary and risk-averse. Although there has to be a balance, success in business often depends on being proactive, identifying opportunities and taking risks to take advantage of them. If you are always on the back foot, your outlook dominated by fighting fires rather than moving forward, you are likely not to even notice these opportunities. Even in the toughest times, you won’t find your way out of the tunnel if you’re not looking for it.

Tides of change

So much for the theory behind positive thinking. But as we enter the completely unchartered waters of Brexit still with no certainty about what our trading relationships with our nearest neighbours will look like in a couple of months time, does this constitute valid strategy or mere wishful thinking?

Everyone is expecting some kind of negative impact on UK business, at least in the short term, when the country leaves the EU. It might be added cost and bureaucracy around imports and exports, it might be the pound weakens, it might be we find our position in key markets suddenly weakened. Whatever it might be, a typical reaction to any threat to income and value is to batten down the hatches – scale back expenditure, scale back budgets, scale back forecasts.

But as this HBR article argues, why should we think purely vertical terms? Business does not have to be just a matter of moving forwards and backward depending how favourable or unfavourable the conditions are. Rather than taking a backwards step in testing times, is difficulty not a sign that we need to rethink our business in a more fundamental way, and embrace new approaches that do allow us to move forward again?

If UK businesses do find the going gets even tougher post-Brexit, then a general retreat into cutbacks in a desperate bid to save margins will inevitably lead to recession. On the other hand, by embracing the challenge of change with an agile and open mindset, business leaders can do more than any elected representative to keep the country’s economy afloat.

The tides of change are coming. Whether we sink or swim will depend on how alert we remain to the opportunities that wash with it.