Why crisis also means opportunity

By Riaan Bekker, Force Solutions Manager at thryve

The Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is not a combination of ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’. Like many such attributed pieces of wisdom, the actual concept came from Western authors fascinated by the idea, encouraged by a mistranslation of the Chinese word. Politicians, most famously US President John F. Kennedy, would quote this idea in speeches, no doubt because it resonates well with audiences.

Yet despite the misunderstanding of the world, the concept of crisis and opportunity is strong because it is fundamentally correct. There are many case studies and behavioural experiments that show we tend not to take change seriously until we face a crisis.

An easy example is how often people change their lifestyles after a health scare. Hardened smokers and impenitent junk food eaters drop the cigarettes and chips in a flash once their mortality becomes obvious.

‘Crisis’ is an apt way to describe the general state of the world. We are being hammered by energy shortages, political shenanigans, and a growing mood of apathy. Politicians are not behaving much better, markets are uncertain, and climate problems are causing incredible devastation.

It’s almost enough to book a flight to Mars with Elon Musk.

Yet the same behaviour humans display can be found in companies and societies as well. Crisis stimulates us. A crisis can make us all look in the same direction.

Crises are not welcome to our risk-averse minds. They come across as expensive, disruptive and not what we need right now. Yet, as JFK pointed out in the same speech as his Chinese mistranslation: in a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognise the opportunity.

Crises bring opportunities because they challenge traditional approaches and dogmas. A crisis doesn’t materialise out of nowhere – there is always a cause. The crisis is the result of how that cause impacts someone or something. If there were no significant impact, there’d be no crisis. At least some of the behaviours and assumptions made before the crisis are at fault.

It’s the root of the saying: “Necessity is the mother of invention.” If people remain comfortable, they don’t innovate and improve. A crisis is a catalyst, not always a catastrophe.

We are currently facing some serious crises, some which could descend into catastrophes. But it also means we have unprecedented opportunities to build collaboration and cooperation between different parties. Everyone might not agree on what’s right, but a crisis creates consensus on what went wrong and how to deal with it. This is particularly useful in large organisations as it can quell dissent and force people to push aside petty differences.

The Brookings Institute has delved into the topic of crisis and opportunity. It offers several points to help large entities such as enterprises and governments prepare for a crisis:

  • Study and analyse previous crises
  • Imagine and plan
  • Assemble a multi-faceted team or network
  • Develop a communication strategy

Once a crisis is in motion, the institute recommends:

  • Step 1: Define the crisis
  • Step 2: Ask fundamental questions
  • Step 3: Reframe the problem
  • Step 4: Give permission to fail
  • Step 5: Manage the narrative

You can explore these steps in more depth through the link above. But I hope I have convinced you that – even though the Chinese word for crisis doesn’t reflect this – crisis and opportunity to go hand-in-hand. It’s never pleasant, but it stimulates change and new ideas. Crises can’t be avoided, but we can prepare for them and, when they arrive, use them to our advantage.

Modern technologies such as Salesforce make it much easier to manage the positive facets around a crisis and dampen the negative ones. At thryve, we work to align such technologies with the operations of our customers so they can get the best even in hard times.

Today it is much more straightforward to turn a crisis into opportunities. So don’t let bad news get you down. Instead, have it get you going.