Chapter 1: Big Thinking

Chapter 2: Big Growth

Chapter 3: Big Opportunity

Big Sources

Big Relationships

Chapter 4: Big Exploration

Big Trends

Big Dimensions

Big Insights

Big Picture

Chapter 5: Big Landscape

Big Spaces

Big Starters

Big Shapers

Big Stories

Chapter 6: Big Ideas

Big Farming

Killer Ideas

Big Mining

Chapter 7: Big Future

Little Epilogue




The Author of everything


My amazingly creative, inspiring, and supportive family—Michael, Bryce, Bond, Britt, and Mom.

You are embarking on a journey . . .


taking you around the world . . .


inspiring you with stories of organizations and brands . . .


in pursuit of opportunity and growth . . . toward a bigger future through Opportunity Thinking!




A paradox?

Not really.

Ideas have too often been relied upon as the catalyst for growth.

Why not? Ideas are enticing, ideas are entertaining, and ideas are energizing. Each good one holds hope—hope for a better world, for a fuller life, for things bigger, faster, cheaper, healthier, more beautiful—hope for some kind of tangible growth.

We hunger for ideas to help meet our challenges, solve our problems, and give us a brighter future. Without ideas there would be little progress. History is full of amazing ideas that have delivered both small and large advances in how we live. Many of these successes were so noteworthy and so beneficial we eventually began to assume ideas were the source of progress and the creators of growth.

Ideas are any man’s greatest asset.

Harvey Firestone, founder of Firestone Tires

Ideas are the beginning points of all fortunes.

Napoleon Hill, personal success guru

It’s always possible to have a great company if you have great ideas.

Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo!

Ideas . . . more than money, are the real currency for success.

Eli Broad, billionaire, philanthropist

Real wealth is ideas plus energy.

Richard Buckminster Fuller, architect, futurist

Despite their allure, ideas in the commercial world are too often failing to deliver on their promises.

It takes about 3,000 ideas to get 100 projects, which result in only two launches, producing, on average, one product that breaks even. Of these products, only 20% make some appreciable profit!

Considering all the commercial ideas we generate, the vast majority aren’t very good after all. Ideas are more likely to disappoint than delight, becoming an expensive distraction from growth. This is not the result of acting hastily. The average length of a major new product development project in most industries is measured in years, not months.

We are dismally failing with our ideas, even after we have plenty of time to examine them. This is not only a waste of time, resources, and investment but also a waste of the personal commitment.


It’s been said that no idea is a bad idea. This brainstorming mantra is meant to spur creativity and unleash a torrent of ideas by removing barriers of doubt and objection. We all know it isn’t true, though—some ideas are actually quite bad!

The problem is not with the mantra; the problem is that we don’t have a reliable way of producing or knowing a good idea from a bad one until it’s too late. As a result, in a world dying to have new ideas, new ideas are all too often dying and taking our hopes and aspirations for growth down with them.

If bad ideas were to have an epitaph it would probably be . . .


Clearly our concern here is not with ideas that fail in the lab. After all, Thomas Edison—a master of invention—is credited with saying of his pursuit of the lightbulb,

“I haven’t failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”


It is important to form many ideas and to test them—in the lab. Our concern is with those that fail in the market—the ideas on which we place our bets for success and profit and send forth with great anticipation into the world. These ideas passed the lab tests but failed the wallet test, disappointing us and our customers.

So what distinguishes ideas that succeed in delivering growth from those that don’t?

Some ideas fail because there appears to be no demand for them.

People weren’t clamoring for Tangy Fish and Crispy Bacon flavored water for their pets; parents were offended by Abercrombie and Fitch’s introduction of padded swimsuit tops for little girls; and no one seemed to find disposable underwear from Bic to be compelling enough to buy. There have been a stream of tech flops, from Microsoft’s ActiMates, plush toys that connected children to TV programmers (a bit scary!); to Sony’s egg-shaped Rolly, their contender for the iPod; or Swatch’s Internet Time, a new system for telling time with 1,000 beats, meant to reduce the confusion of time zones. Never heard of these? Well, that’s the point!

The list of ideas that didn’t last in the market could fill these pages. From New Coke to Crystal Pepsi, otherwise successful companies and people have too often missed the mark, either in concept or timing.

Other ideas intrigued us with hints at success: they had all of us watching, even expecting them to revolutionize the world, but ultimately they went out with a whimper. They failed because they caught the edge of an opportunity, but a better-crafted alternative captured the full potential.

Experts and amateurs alike closely followed the Blu-ray versus HD-DVD battle. Although Toshiba’s HD-DVD could be produced at lower cost, a Blu-ray disc played on more popular devices, such as the Sony PlayStation console, and carried a wider movie library. Car-sharing programs, such as Zipcar, delivered a solution for inner-city transport by using the existing infrastructure around cars while foot-traffic replacements like the Segway drowned in strict regulations, limited uses, and high costs. Highly promoted and highly processed fat alternative, Olestra, was quickly shunned by consumers ultimately favoring the simple, natural solution of baked snacks from Lays.

These ideas didn’t take root: like tumbleweeds, they died and were blown away. Some were planted where there was no opportunity and others were not sufficiently rooted where there was opportunity. Ideas that fully tap into opportunity are far more likely to take hold and fulfill their promise of growth. It is the opportunity that both predefines the value of an idea and defines those ideas that will have value.

We need to start with opportunity.


After all, many innovation processes start with ideation. Business leaders spend hours in idea-generation sessions but little time in opportunity-generation sessions. Myriad methodologies have been published on ideation, but few exist on opportunity definition.

Is it any wonder that the most common image on the cover of any innovation book is the lightbulb, the icon for the “bright idea”?

Some organizations have clearly invested in exploring opportunity, but most only give a head nod to its definition. From innovation to acquisition, business processes require some sort of description of the potential opportunity prize and an approximation of its size. Unfortunately, the ensuing opportunity stories are usually thin at best, lacking any real depth, and provide little direction for developing, let alone choosing, the ideas that will succeed.

We tick the opportunity box by requiring estimates of opportunity size, using metrics such as total available market, potential market share, or some other measure.

The size merely tells us go or no-go. It leaves us in the dark about true opportunity (who, what, where, when, and why), giving us little direction as to its real attractiveness or fit and even less direction toward which ideas will work.

Without this information, even the numbers are suspect. How can we really seize an opportunity when we know so little about it? This may be one reason why as many as 80% of mergers and acquisitions don’t live up to expectations. Leaders envision a transformed company created from an acquisition, but the changing of the guard may not even phase the market, delivering no new value to customers and, in the end, no new value to shareholders. Lack of clarity on the dynamics of an opportunity contributes to missing the mark in other areas of business as well. We risk wasting marketing dollars, developing new brands that fall flat, creating brand extensions that cannibalize revenue, and pursuing geographic expansions that are later retracted. We may have figured out the size of the opportunity, carefully calculating financial returns, but have no notion of its real nature.

Knowing how much water a vase will hold doesn’t tell us anything about its shape, much less what flowers it’s best suited to display.

Knowing the size of an opportunity doesn’t tell us anything about its shape much less the ideas that will best fit.


We must go beyond sizing as a proxy for understanding opportunity and dig deeper into its real nature. Currently, opportunity exploration and idea generation are separate processes, completely disconnected from each other. Understanding opportunities should be the foundation for developing ideas that resonate in the market.

The problems with ideas and their lack of success are driving people to say they want bigger ideas. But bigger ideas simply don’t happen without bigger opportunities and a better understanding of those opportunities.

Think of an idea as a koi and an opportunity as the pond. Some suggest if you put one of these beautiful orange and black Japanese fish in a small pond, it will stay small. Put it in a large pond and that same fish will grow quite large. The fish grow only as large as their environment allows.


While many organizations have realized the importance of killing off individual ideas in order to arrive at bigger ideas, they have not come to understand that ideas themselves might be the culprit for their lower-than-expected returns. The allure of ideas has distracted us from understanding opportunity. Too often, ideas have been disguised as the path to growth when in fact they have been a path to nowhere. Something has to change. We must stop hoping for the BIG IDEA that will kick-start our growth. Instead we need to start our growth journey focused on discovering and generating opportunity as the precursor to big ideas.

This book isn’t big growth nirvana. It won’t give all the answers or point to fields lush with opportunities. It won’t guarantee winning, but it can improve your odds and reduce your risk. What this book will do is unfold the unique approach of Opportunity Thinking, which could dramatically change the way you pursue growth and develop really big ideas.


One of the pleasures in a child’s life is to track their progress of growth on a wall with pencil markings. Our desire for growth begins early and doesn’t stop with childhood. Growth evokes a spirit of optimism for a promising future. Whether we are running a business, getting an education, raising children, or tending a garden, growth is a key measure of success.

Today’s organizations also want growth, particularly at a time when it seems so hard to come by. Growth is a signal of a healthy business. It draws in stockholders, gives confidence to stakeholders, engages employees in new challenges and pursuits, and appeals to customers. Growth is a sign we are doing the right things for today and the future.


Growth is in the eye of the beholder

Organizations seek to grow in different ways at different times. Companies might target market share or revenues, focus on profitability or geographic footprint.

But growth doesn’t always mean size.

In a world that is questioning the limits of growth, growth can mean an organization has broader impact on people while using fewer resources, creates bigger innovations from fewer projects, builds a stronger reputation and a larger community, or does more good with its current assets.

Most organizations want something more. They don’t want just growth by the numbers; they want growth beyond the numbers—transformational growth that strengthens and builds their organization, culture, and impact.

This is big growth—growth that touches the organization more deeply and provides a springboard for the future, ensuring that the growth will be sustainable.


Sustainable growth is hard to come by, even for seasoned and successful companies. Organizations that appear to be at the top of their game and to have cornered the market on their opportunities do not always stay at the top.

When the Fortune 500 list began in 1955, historical data predicted that companies would average 75 years on the list. By 1983 the lifespan on the list had fallen to 40 years. Today it is 15 years; and 434 of the original 500 have fallen off the list—all in a little more than 50 years.

Several of today’s most respected and innovative companies didn’t exist 15 years ago. Chances are they, too, will be replaced, probably sooner than their founders think.

So what happened to those who are gone? Their growth was not sustainable. Perhaps they tapped out their opportunities; and as the opportunities dried up so did their drive. Maybe risk aversion grew with prominence; complacency grew with success; or the politics of the parts overshadowed the imperative of the whole. Some may have assumed that big growth was perpetual—a right—based on the growth they had already achieved. In the end, many failed to change while others innovated and developed even more imaginative ways to capture the hearts and minds of customers.


“The most fatal illusion is the narrow point of view. Since life is growth and motion, a fixed point of view kills anybody who has one.”

Brooks Atkinson, theater critic

Sustainable growth comes from many forces, but it starts with identifying sustainable opportunities. Such opportunities have both depth and longevity. They are big enough to ensure they won’t be tapped out in the near future. They allow for more than a one-hit wonder, creating room for a true pipeline of big ideas.

Sustainable growth also comes from recognizing that opportunities don’t stand still. Opportunities are constantly morphing and taking on new forms. To grow sustainably, we must be followers of opportunities and change as they change.


Ability to follow opportunity and adapt accordingly is driven, in part, by the vision of leaders and the culture they help create. Encouraging an organization to follow opportunity as it changes requires courage and a willingness to constantly transform—an uneasy act when organizations themselves are also shifting and changing faster than ever before.


In many organizations roles change on an annual basis, making the process of guiding the organization through changing opportunities even more difficult. It can even become attractive from a career standpoint to risk future growth in order to look good today, consigning sustainable growth to whoever may follow.

Sustaining growth requires a balancing act of following opportunity and not getting ahead of it.

If we try to grow too fast, we will not be able to sustain growth. Growing too fast is just as dangerous as being sluggish in following our opportunities. We see this in agriculture. If we underfertilize, plants won’t reach their full potential in yield. If we overfertilize, plants will become stalky, leggy, unable to support the fruit they produce. Either way, an organization won’t be making the most of opportunity and won’t sustain proper growth.

Growth can not only outstrip our opportunities and organizations, but also our environment. Big, sustainable growth provides for today in a way that does not exhaust what will be needed tomorrow. It means allowing our resources to regenerate or evolve so that we may draw from them in the future. It takes responsibility for the ethical, social, and economic impact upon our employees and the wider community. Companies can certainly grow without acting responsibly, but usually it will come back to harm them. Alternatively, no company can afford to grow in a way that is great for the environment but so expensive or inefficient that it cannot sustain its business. That is why many companies are now looking at the triple bottom line—profits, people, and planet. Our goal must be to identify opportunities that will reward responsible growth and create ways to grow responsibly wherever we are.


image Seventh Generation has found and expanded opportunity for sustainable growth across the triple bottom line. They sell consumer goods including cleaning, baby care, and personal care products. Their mission is to inspire a revolution that nurtures the health of the next seven generations. Reduced waste and less toxicity in formulation and packaging has been their product development focus, earning them the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Bio-Approval label.

An extensive range of corporate responsibility programs—from their efforts to reduce greenhouse gases to their partnerships with Latina women’s organizations to raise women out of poverty—won them the prestigious Leader for Change award from the United Nations in 2011. They even teach courses on their “for-benefit model,” a business model in which for-profit companies create social and environmental benefits. The reward for Seventh Generation has been sales that have grown 160% since beginning business in 1988. image

“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”

Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy

Sustainable, responsible growth can come from different strategies. Some companies pursue this growth through evolutionary approaches while others seek to grow through revolutionary efforts.

Evolutionary approach to opportunity

Evolutionary strategies for growth come from tapping into the depths of an opportunity through our current approaches to creating value. We stick with an opportunity and mine it, creating growth from it, and continually building from our core.

We pursue ways to improve our products, reduce costs, enhance technology, or stretch brands. An evolutionary approach to opportunity is no less rewarding than its more radical-sounding counterpart: revolution. Evolutionary strategies can produce as significant growth over time as revolutionary strategies—much like the tortoise beating the hare.

Evolutionary approaches to growth are not without their challenges, though. We might imagine that because growth is close to home we would know our opportunities well enough to know a good idea when we see it. Not so. Opportunities we sit within are often the most difficult to understand.

Just as a fish doesn’t know it is wet, so companies often can’t see or feel the very opportunities where they are swimming.

Perhaps this is why line extensions underdeliver against current products by over 13% in revenue, cannibalizing current product sales and reducing total revenue. Companies find it difficult to move beyond their core products, varieties, or flavors. Nothing beats the original.

Understanding how to dig deeper in our current opportunities requires fresh eyes and fresh approaches to produce big ideas that help us better mine potential.


image Fiskars illustrates how to continually apply core capabilities to grow opportunity. Fiskars Ironworks is Finland’s oldest company and one of the oldest in the world. Started in 1649 in the Uusimaa province of Finland, they literally mined opportunity—beginning with iron and later with the discovery of copper. They focused on producing metal items, starting with nails and wires, then steam engines and tools.

Their excellence in metal tools brought new growth. In the 1960s, Olaf Backstrom, a Fiskars engineer, experimented with strip stainless steel and injection-molded plastics, and designed the world’s first lightweight scissors, complete with their now-signature orange plastic handles. Aesthetically pleasing, the design won them a position in the Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

At one point they tried to grow through acquisitions further from their core, but backed off when these attempts eroded profits. Restructuring and focusing on acquisitions in tools and metal items led to success. They have steadily grown their market position and sales of everything from scissors to garden equipment. Their approach to sustainability has emerged directly from their core—driven through enduring design and attention to materials, as well as the low carbon footprint and end-of-life of their products. image

Evolutionary approaches to growing within our opportunities allow us to do what we do well and expand carefully into adjacent applications. These approaches can bring big rewards for companies in terms of efficiency and know-how.

image Consider WD-40’s approach to mining its opportunities. In 1953 the company developed a water-resistant chemical intended for sale to a niche market of large industrial rocket producers. The product found its way into a few employees’ homes where it was used to oil hinges and more. WD-40 repackaged the substance for retail distribution in 1958. The lubricant’s market share grew steadily with the introduction of new applications. Starting with three employees, the company has become a lean machine of a mere 280 employees managing over $300 million in sales annually, with presence in 80% of U.S. households. A determined focus has paid off handsomely with consistent growth. image

Revolutionary approach to opportunity

Revolutionary approaches to growth come from either creating a new opportunity or from radically expanding an opportunity by changing how we deliver value. This type of approach could come from breakthrough innovation in technology, opening new markets, utilizing resources that were sitting idle, delivering a new business model, or acquiring a new capability. Revolution occurs when we create a breakthrough or when we take advantage of an adjacent breakthrough. Technologies such as the Internet, smartphones and social media have transformed how almost every business pursues opportunity.

Revolutionary strategies smack of big ideas—killer ideas so big that they, in and of themselves, expand opportunity. These ideas usually create new value for consumers, expanding the original opportunity while also attracting a following of new competitors. Sometimes in an effort to pursue revolutionary growth we venture into opportunities that feel so foreign they all look big and exciting. Not all of them are attractive, but we lack the frame of reference to know a good one from a bad one. Ignorance can make everything look innovative! Just because a business model or product offering is new to us doesn’t mean it will bring truly new value to a market, even if it threatens to create disruption among our own staff. Successful growth from revolution requires that we revolutionize our markets or industries, as opposed to inciting revolution within our own companies.


image Started in 1943 by 17-year-old Ingvar Kampred in Sweden, IKEA (named after his initials and that of the farm he grew up on) soon began selling inexpensive, locally made, quality wood furniture. When he outgrew his shop, he started a catalog with mail order and deliveries made by milkmen! To defend against competitors, he created a showroom to demonstrate the quality of his surprisingly economical furniture. In 1956, seeing the struggles of customers to transport what they bought, IKEA redesigned furniture to allow easy carrying, disassembly, and flat packing. Expansion was gradual at first—Norway, Denmark, and Switzerland. With a focus on reducing costs, they innovated on their supply chain, buying sawmills, developing rail systems, and integrating from forest to furniture. Design, functionality, and materials were continually improved to create superior aesthetics and usability. Their mix of new approaches led to explosive growth, with stores opening across Western and Eastern Europe, Australia, the United States, Japan, China, and more. They grew so fast they accidentally opened a store in the wrong city. With more than 280 stores in more than 25 countries, sales have reached €25 billion (about $33.4 billion) with €2.9 billion (about $3.9 billion) in net income, making IKEA the world’s largest furniture retailer and the third-largest consumer of wood in the world, behind Lowe’s and The Home Depot!

The model that won them growth is delivering a great sustainability record. In 2010 they redesigned a popular sofa, the EKTOR, reducing pack size by 50%, eliminating 7,400 trucks and reducing CO2 emissions by 4,700 tons per year. Partnering with the World Wildlife Foundation, across their integrated value chain they are taking on issues such as cotton cultivation, water treatment, and forestry management. With a goal of running on 100% renewable energy, they are building a wind farm and have investments in alternative energy ranging from solar to geothermal. They and their customers have donated more than €82 million (about $107 million) to children’s education, prevention of child labor, and relief in more than 20 countries. image

Revolutionary growth can start in unexpected places—sometimes leveraging abundant resources that have heretofore gone unused—creating new opportunity.

image Saudi Arabia had an abundance of natural gas from oil production, gas which was just being flared or reinjected. Equally abundant was their labor force, eager for growth. The government saw an opportunity to add value to both. In 1976 they established the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation (SABIC) to produce chemicals, polymers, and fertilizers. SABIC soon became one of the world’s fastest growing and most profitable companies, going from production of 6.3 million metric tons (mmt) in 1985 to 69 mmt by 2012. Sales are now SR190B (about $50 billion) with net income of SR29B (about $7.7 billion). They have created jobs and educational assistance both at home and in 40 other countries where they are located.

Innovation in plastics has won them top awards in sustainability for their high performance iQ resin, a proprietary product produced from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. The material requires half the CO2 to produce and, combined with SABIC’s color-matching abilities, can be used in applications ranging from furniture to computers to automobiles. Innovating with Land Rover, they combined their polymers with efficient design to cut the Evoque’s weight by 35%, reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, while improving the wear, strength, and aesthetics of the parts. image

Revolution meets evolution

Some opportunities lend themselves to evolution from continuous improvement, while others are ripe for revolution from breakthrough. However, opportunities do not stand still. They are often on the move. They may look dormant for a time and then burst forth, opening the doors for new growth but also new competition.

The changing face of opportunity challenges a conundrum we see in growth literature and boardrooms. Should we grow close to the core through continuous improvement in capabilities and markets or further from the core by expanding and seeking breakthrough in our technologies or markets? This decision can make or break a company. In fact, a new CEO will sometimes swing the pendulum from one side of the debate to the other, shifting resources closer to or further from the company’s center of gravity.

This is a bit of a false dilemma. When we look at growth through the eyes of opportunity we realize that we can only grow in accordance with the nature of the opportunity itself, and the nature of all opportunities is that they change. They have a life of their own regardless of our predispositions. Once revolutionized into existence, an opportunity will be developed through evolution until conditions are ripe for revolution once more. This means we must be agile enough to grow both close to our core and beyond if we are to sustain growth from opportunity. The shifts required by this cycle can catch us off guard. We often struggle to see the potential for revolution when we are working hard on evolutionary growth. We rarely ask, “How can we obsolete ourselves?” Although we should ask ourselves this question if we hope to sustain our growth.

If we neglect to keep an eye on the shifting sands of the opportunity landscape, we will be left aiming at a mirage while our opportunity has dried up or moved on, leaving our growth aspirations in the dust.

Long dormant, China recently became one of the fastest growing beer markets in the world. The opportunity in China can be seen in two companies—one with evolutionary growth, the other with revolutionary growth.

image Tsingtao is a picture of the last 100 years of China itself. Established in 1903 by the Germans who had invaded China, it was acquired by the Japanese in 1914 and turned back into a Chinese-owned brewery in 1922. In 1949 it was taken over by the People’s Republic of China and privatized later, in the 1990s. Largely exported until the 1980s, it is the number one Chinese beer in many international markets. It has been a mature beer waiting for the domestic market to catch up.

As happens with opportunities, they change; and with that change new competition arises. The newcomer Xue Hua, known as Snow, was formed in 1993 through a joint venture between China Resources Enterprises and SAB Miller. Snow has grown through acquisition and by leapfrogging with technology—taking old breweries and upgrading them with the best technology. They have focused on brand building—targeting youth and linking their brand to growing activities, such as skiing, a sport where the number of resorts alone has doubled in just a few years.

Revolutionary approaches to an opportunity can sometimes overtake evolutionary approaches, displacing those who built the market to start with. Snow is now the larger of the two beer companies. It hasn’t just leapfrogged Tsingtao, though. It has leapfrogged all other beers in the world—becoming the best-selling beer of all! image



Opportunity: origin 1375–1425 [Latin ob portu]

The word opportunity harkens back to a world of harbors and sailing vessels. Before the chug of an engine could power a boat to safe harbor, sailing ships had to sit outside of port waiting for the right wind and tide conditions to carry them and their wares to their destination. These conditions were called ob portu, Latin for “into port.” The perfect mix of tide and wind conditions came to be called opportunity.

Ask around today and many would say that the opportunity was the port itself—the market awaiting the goods—the people with unmet needs, wants, and desires creating demand for new products from distant lands. At the other side of the world, the maker of the goods that became cargo may have viewed the opportunity as the chance to invent something new, perhaps using a new technology to create superior goods, which in turn spurred new demand. The people of that time saw it differently. To them the opportunity was about the conditions that brought the cargo and the port together.