What’s more important – skill, luck, or timing? The message I want to deliver is this; opportunity and timing are inexorably linked. So much so, that if you don’t think that timing is everything – think again.

Even a cursory review of current events shows it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a politician, investment banker, CEO, or just an average citizen – when it comes to making a simple decision, managing a crisis, or attempting to exploit an opportunity, timing is everything. In today’s post, I’ll take a look at the opportunity as a key success metric…

I’ve often heard people quip they would rather be lucky than smart. While intelligence and good fortune are certainly both valuable traits to possess, neither of these traits holds a candle to having a great sense of timing. Luck is a hit or miss proposition, and we’ve all known many a brilliant underachiever. However, it has been my observation you’ll rarely come across someone who possesses a great sense of timing who is anything other than successful.

As the verse from the old Kenny Rogers song goes “you have to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.” There are a few times in the life of every professional where staggering opportunities will present themselves. The question is not whether these opportunities exist, but rather what will you do with them when they cross your path. I believe one of the key differences between excellence and mediocrity is the ability to not only recognize opportunities but to also possess an understanding and willingness to exploit said opportunities. Exploiting opportunities requires you not only possess vision, but also a corresponding bias to action (and a bit of courage as well).

Rarely will you come across a static opportunity in the sense that it will stand idle and wait for you to act. Significant opportunities are not only scarce, but they typically operate on the principle of diminishing returns. Put simply, opportunities are time-sensitive. The longer you wait to seize the opportunity the smaller the return typically is. In fact, the more likely case is the opportunity will completely evaporate if you wait too long to seize it. Keep this thought in mind; when opportunity knocks – answer the door.

I can’t even begin to count the number of times I watched people miss great opportunities due to a poor sense of timing. Not too surprisingly, people who possess a poor sense of timing usually don’t even understand timing is an issue. How many times have you witnessed someone pass over a great hire because they were holding out for better talent? Other examples of missed opportunities are those who hold-out for a higher valuation, evolving markets, technology advances, or any number of other circumstances that either never transpire, or by the time they do, the opportunistic advantage had disappeared? I’ve observed the risk-averse take due diligence one step too far, the greedy negotiate too long, the impulsive jump the gun, and the plodders move to slow. As the saying goes “timing is everything.” The following list contains 5 suggestions for how to spot and evaluate opportunity:

  1. Alignment: The opportunity should be in alignment with the overall vision and mission of the enterprise. Any new opportunity being evaluated should preferably add value to the core, but if not, it should show a significant enough return on investment to justify the dilutive effect of not keeping the main thing the main thing. The core should be used to align, but not necessarily to exclude.
  2. Advantage: No advantage equals no opportunity. If the opportunity doesn’t provide a unique competitive advantage it should at least fill a void bringing you closer to an even playing field. Be careful however not to fall into the trap of “me too” innovation – copying isn’t innovating. Instead of leveling the field, think about tilting the field to your advantage, and where possible, the creation of a new field altogether.
  3. Assessment: Is the opportunity affordable, feasible, adaptable, and most importantly, is it actionable? An opportunity that cannot be implemented isn’t really an opportunity – it will likely be just another very costly distraction. Conduct your diligence before you pull the trigger, not afterward. A ready – fire – aim approach to opportunity management usually fails to hit the target.
  4. Accountability:  Keep in mind great ideas are not always the same thing as great opportunities. Ideas don’t always have a corresponding vision, nor do they always contain a framework of accountability which helps to ensure certainty of execution. For opportunities to become reality they must be viewed through the lenses of organizational awareness and personal responsibility. Any new opportunity being considered should contain accountability provisions. Every task should be assigned and managed according to a plan and in the light of the day. Any opportunity being adopted must be measurable. Deliverables, benchmarks, deadlines, and success metrics must be incorporated into the plan. The opportunity must be detailed and deliverable on a schedule – it needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. Any opportunity not subjected to sound principles of leadership will likely fail.
  5. Achievement: Opportunities are great, but achievements are better. If any of the four items above are missing the outcome will be an unrealized opportunity, or opportunity squandered and lost. The smart game is not played for what could have been, or should have been, but for what was achieved.

The proverbial window closes on every opportunity at some point in time. As you approach each day I would challenge you to consistently evaluate the landscape and seize the opportunities that come your way. Better to be the one who catches the fish than the one who tells the story of the big one who got away.