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A Strategy for Opportunity — Removing Constraints To Lead Your Team to Success

My time working in the special education system taught me a great many things about strategy. The students I worked with face extreme difficulties, and the faculty assigned to teach and care for them are consistently under-resourced. Unpredictability in the work ensures that contingency plans serve as a default mode of operation, and even contingencies upon contingencies eventually prove impractical towards the maintenance of effective, rewarding learning environments.

Because of this, my focus in the field mostly revolved around building general qualities of agility and decisiveness. Agility here is defined as experienced speed and flexibility in responding to changing demands. Decisiveness is the ability to act rationally and quickly in situations with incomplete information. Together, these two qualities allowed the educators I worked with to capitalize on learning opportunities as they arose, and respond to disruptions in the classroom with efficiency and competency. The top-down leadership strategy that I used to develop these qualities is what I have come to call opportunity strategy.

The term opportunity strategy was first described as a dynamic approach to business management used to build agility by reducing regulatory drag and developing individual worker autonomy (Bingham & Eisenhardt, 2011). Although originally developed to help corporations respond to complex, volatile markets, the fundamentals of the opportunity strategy model are able to reduce micromanagement and facilitate agility in an extremely wide array of situations.

The requirements for developing an opportunity strategy are twofold:

1. Identify a focal strategic process by which to approach problems

2. Develop simple, non-negotiable rules capable of guiding this process

In the classrooms I’ve worked in, focal strategic processes have been relatively uniform. Teachers have a curriculum built upon applied behaviorism, which asks them to reinforce positive behavior and withhold reinforcement for behavior that is negative or maladaptive. Non-negotiables include structured responses to safety concerns, and a commitment to the addressal of key learning objectives that are fundamental to their students’ long-term well-being

With these two factors established, teachers and their team of paraprofessionals are given the autonomy to respond to dynamic challenges with their own expertise and discretion. The exact methods they use vary, but using an opportunity strategy ensures that the vision of the team is upheld without the use of constraining micromanagement or meticulous contingencies.

Of course, special education is only one field. Opportunity strategies can be used in an endless list of situations, such as a busy customer support team of a burgeoning startup, whose focal strategic process might involve active listening and structured escalation to higher level associates. Or a marketing team working on a software release whose non-negotiables might include specific imagery and messaging requirements.

It is important to note that opportunity strategies are not ideal for all circumstances. Team efforts requiring extreme precision often need to forego personal autonomy in favor of uniformity—such as a pharmaceutical company running human trials.

But for teams regularly faced with unpredictable issues requiring agile, decisive solutions, utilizing an opportunity strategy is a powerful option that has the capacity to dissolve micromanagement and prime your team for their next big opportunity.

-Paul Grillo

Bingham, C. B., Eisenhardt, K. M., & Furr, N. R. (2011). Which strategy when? MIT Sloan Management Review, 53(1), 71-77.


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