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10 Clues to Opportunity

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Market anomalies and incongruities may point the way to your next breakthrough strategy.

During their heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, transatlantic cruise lines such as the Hamburg America Line and the White Star Line transported tens of millions of passengers between Europe and the United States. By the 1960s, however, their business was being threatened by the rise of a disruptive new enterprise, namely, nonstop transatlantic flights. As it happened, the cruise ship lines had one potential strategy with which to save their business: vacation cruises. Starting in the 1930s, some of these lines had sailed to the Caribbean during the winter, thus using their boats when rough seas made the Atlantic impassable. And in 1964, when a new port was opened in Miami, Fla., the pleasure cruise business began to boom.

But the great cruise lines missed this breakthrough opportunity. They saw their profitability fall while dozens of startups, including Royal Caribbean and Carnival, retrofitted existing ships to offer pleasure cruises and built an entirely new travel and leisure category that continues to grow today.

Managers and entrepreneurs walk past lucrative opportunities all the time, and later kick themselves when someone else exploits the strategy they overlooked. Why does this happen? It’s often because of the natural human tendency known to psychologists as confirmation bias: People tend to notice data that confirms their existing attitudes and beliefs, and ignore or discredit information that challenges them.

Although it is difficult to overcome confirmation bias, it is not impossible. Managers can increase their skill at spotting hidden opportunities by learning to pay attention to the subtle clues all around them. These are often contradictions, incongruities, and anomalies that don’t jibe with most of the prevailing assumptions about what should happen. Here is my own “top 10” field guide to clues for hidden breakthrough opportunities, observed in a wide variety of industries, countries, and markets. If you find yourself noticing one or more of them, a major opportunity for growth could be lurking behind it.

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