The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


May 11, 2022

The Hidden Opportunity

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I used to ask myself why one of my favorite columnists, George Will, was not reading my blog. Maybe I should use words like "obfuscate" or "bloviating" or toss in more references to baseball? It's pride, of course. A growing family of reading friends could not make up for my being so exiguous to George.

For anyone writing a blog or a column there are a number of analytical tools available to show how many people open, click through, and forward what you write. It’s not only that the more controversial posts get the most reactions and followers but, ironically, people like to follow those they might otherwise despise just for the pleasure of calling them out and criticizing anything they say. I'm not as much interested in the numbers and I certainly am not drawn to criticism or starting a fight. I never wanted to be that person.

In the beginning I wanted to know if the right people were taking the time to read what I had to say. I know that sounds pretentious (and it was) but when you start writing you should have an audience in mind. In my case it was restricted to people engaged in Christian philanthropy - except for George Will. All the topics related to those who fit into that category. Instead, I found myself writing to a wider and more diverse group of readers - many of whom had little experience with philanthropy. Pastors, teachers, students, and others were reading and, sadly, my first response was to double down on philanthropy. After all, that was the intended audience and if others were reading then somehow I was missing the target and needed to do more on philanthropy and less on anything else. After all, it was a blog for The Gathering audience and philanthropy was our sole interest. If we did not have a sharp focus then we would dilute “the brand.” But then I remembered something I read years ago.

Peter Drucker, the management writer, described something similar when he wrote in "Innovation and Entrepreneurship" about the "unexpected success" that happens when a product or service finds a market it did not expect or even seek out. Some companies respond quickly and adapt themselves to the new opportunity while others actually resist and work even harder with diminishing results to reach the market they intended. That had been my response. Work harder to reach the intended market. 

Others before me had made the same mistake.

Macy's, the New York retail giant, did poorly for several years because it considered itself primarily a fashion store and was downplaying the growing positive effect of appliance sales. To the company's directors, these sales were an embarrassing success. It was only when they accepted the growth of appliance sales that they turned around financially.

Almost 80 percent of all antibiotics produced are used by animals. Yet, when veterinarians and the food industry tried to buy these drugs they met resistance from the pharmaceutical companies. Allowing the drugs to be sold for animal use was beneath them. When another firm bought the rights and marketed them directly to vets they discovered the most profitable segment of the entire industry.

IBM lowered itself to sell to the business market while Univac resisted the shift from their preferred scientific sales. Univac was ultimately absorbed into a series of larger corporations and proved to be the unintentional victim of what Clayton Christensen coined as “disruption.” That happens when a successful company is so focused on a loyal customer paying high prices for premium products that it ignores smaller customers who cannot afford and don’t need premium products. They want “good enough” and soon the provider of good enough eats into the larger market.

I suspect the demise of the early church in Jerusalem was due, at least in part, to its inability to accept the unexpected success of the Gospel among the Gentiles. That was not their intended market and caused the early apostles to convene a Council to consider the potential negative effects of adjusting their product to a new and unintended market. Paul, on the other hand, discovered how receptive it was, adapted immediately and the history of the Church changed forever.

What happens when you resist unexpected success because it is not the way it is supposed to be? You not only miss hidden opportunities but, worse, you may go out of business completely.

Drucker also said, "Changing your whole direction to take account of an unexpected success requires humility...because the unexpected success is a challenge to management’s judgment.”

I understand that. So, it's okay if George Will never reads my blog. Maybe that's even an unexpected success. Maybe even a home run.

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