Magazine Article | June 13, 2012

Life Is Planned Opportunism

Source: Life Science Leader

By Vijay Govindarajan, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College

I have a personal philosophy to guide my career — planned opportunism. When I present this philosophy to senior executives, they readily relate to it — both for personal strategy as well as for driving organizational strategy.

Any major change in one’s life is always the result of chance events. This is the “opportunism” part. But, how one responds to a chance event is anything but chance. That is the “planned” part. Planning is about knowing yourself, your strengths, your aspirations, and your competencies. The more you know yourself, the more you can take risks and harness and leverage the chance event.  Life is neither completely planned, nor is it completely random. It is an interplay between chance events and intentional choices. This is the essence of planned opportunism. Let me give an example.

I did my chartered accountancy degree in India. (They call it a CPA in the United States.) The course prescribed “required” texts which every student must read. But, the course had optional readings, not necessary for the exam. I used to read the optional texts. Many such texts were filled with dry numbers and abstract concepts. There was one such reference book by a Harvard Business School professor named Bob Anthony. In it, Anthony articulated a view of accounting that was a total revelation to me. Accounting, according to him, was not a technical subject but influences human behavior. I still remember the day I read that book. I told myself: “Wow, accounting is not the boring subject that I thought it was. It can change people’s behaviors.” On that day I decided I must come to Harvard and study under professors who thought so differently. A chance event — stumbling upon Bob Anthony’s book — changed the trajectory of my career.

Similarly, corporate strategy cannot be completely planned. Neither is it completely random. It, too, is a happy marriage between intentional choices and random events. So much in the industry changes in unpredictable ways. No company can predict how the future will unfold. There are likely to be dramatic shifts in technology, customer preferences, entry of new competitors, lifestyle and demographic changes, and so on. These changes are random. This is the “opportunism” part. What a corporation needs to do is to build the right set of capabilities and set big audacious goals. This is the “planned” part. The key is to leverage your company’s capabilities to capture future opportunities, whatever they may be.

Reverse innovation is any innovation adopted first in an emerging market. In 2005, GE did not know all the opportunities it could pursue in India. What the company did that year was to build a variety of capabilities in India — including R&D, supply chain, and marketing. With the right set of capabilities, GE was able to innovate a portable $500 electrocardiogram (ECG) machine for rural India — a huge success. (In the United States, ECG machines cost between $3,000 and $10,000.) No company can predict the future, but planned opportunism can help you to effectively prepare for it.

Vijay Govindarajan is the Earl C. Daum 1924 Professor of International Business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. His latest book is Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere, HBR Press.