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The Opportunity for Growth in Tough Times

Over the last two years I have seen first hand how leaders of organizations large and small are driving growth in our sluggish economy. By growth I mean one of three things: (1) Increased profits, (2) Increases in revenue that will generate profits in the near term—for example, following an upfront investment or due to a predictable, favorable change in the market like the massive distribution of iPads that took place this last Xmas—or (3) Increases in market penetration that will generate increased profits. This last version of growth I call a gateway act because it opens the way to new sources of profit.

There is a dramatic difference between those organizations that are growing aggressively and those who are not. The latter group is hunkering down, hoping to weather the storm. Instead of driving expansion they are becoming marginalized, receding into the background, and as a consequence facing commoditization—not an enviable position.

But those who are doing well look at things differently. Instead of battening the hatches to prepare for heavy weather, they look for something I call the Tough Times Opportunity Window.

This window happens anytime satisfaction dips into the negative zone, meaning customers are dissatisfied. They can be dissatisfied for quantitative reasons as when their margins or volume are down. But the window is just as real when they are dissatisfied emotionally—i.e., pessimistic or upset.

When customers are dissatisfied, they want things to be other than they are. That is exactly the circumstance aggressive players leverage to create new kinds of value. This opportunity lasts only as long as the dissatisfaction, and moves from high to low margin as others in the market recognize and capitalize on it.

There are three strategies that utilize this window for success:

1. Focus on alleviating the constraints your customers are experiencing.

2. Transpose your core competencies to adjacent markets.

3. Capitalize on your relationship assets (high-value customers who trust you) to uncover new opportunities for value creation.

Over the next two weeks I will explore each of these, showing how they work and providing a case study.

Seth Kahan ( is a Change Leadership specialist, helping leaders successfully adapt to the new world of business. He has worked closely with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, Prudential, Marriott, World Bank, Peace Corps, American Society of Association Executives, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His Web site is His latest book is Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out. Download a free excerpt at