Opportunity Bias

– as printed in the OGFOA newsletter for January 2020

As consulting professionals to state and local governments, much of what our team does is look for opportunities to improve efficiencies, become more effective in meeting objectives, and strengthen internal controls. We are also trained and skilled at looking for opportunities to work with new clients and build our own practice. There is a mindset that goes with all of this – a mindset that flips challenges and obstacles on their heads. That mindset is what I call having an “opportunity bias”.

With so much information pounding us from so many different directions, and all the deadlines we face (internal, external, real, and imagined) it is easy to become calloused and hardened. It’s easy to see things as obstacles, keeping us from where we need to be and what we want to get done. That perspective – one of obstacles and challenges – is healthy to a point. It keeps us sharp and motivates us. Beyond that point though, if it becomes habit and overtakes a healthy view of the world, it can hurt us and our performance.

Perspective and mindset are a choice. We can’t control the things that happen around us, but we have complete control over how we view them and react. When an auditor identifies a weakness in an entity’s internal controls or an error in the accounting records, we don’t have to let that weakness define us. How we react and what we do to correct the situation are much more important and defining of our organization. These are more than just challenges – they are opportunities to make something better.

Being able to frame situations as opportunities rather than the constant challenges and problems is having an opportunity bias. With practice, we see the chance to improve something or take performance to that next level. It isn’t easy and sometimes the journey is painful, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy right? Think about how you would rather spend your time – pounding away on somebody’s problems or taking advantage of opportunities to help them. Same situation but with a different attitude. Different perspective. A bias towards opportunity.

Let me explain through an example. I am working with a client currently that has a lot going on operationally. They are working through the final stages of a financial statement audit, as well as dealing with some internal situations that are impacting their performance both financially and functionally. Sound familiar? In listening to leadership and others within the organization, there is a common sense of piling on… that one situation is compounded by another and another. Personnel issues need to be addressed. Processes need reworking. And of course, time is a premium. 

We worked with them to break down the situation into pieces that we could get our arms around and see that each is a step toward where they want to be… a step toward awesome. We framed each task as an opportunity to take that step. It is about being able to see the end – the win – and keep that as motivation to do the hard work. We are helping them establish clear expectations and accountability in their personnel through clear communication. They are looking at processes not just as the need to document what they are doing, but an opportunity to spot steps where there is no value add and eliminate them. They are making good progress in finding efficiencies which in turn save time. That “found” time can then be dedicated to additional tasks and moving them closer to their objectives.

They have identified an opportunity to reevaluate certain positions and where they fit in the overall flow of work through the organization. The assessment of skills in each of their team lets them align the work that needs to be done with the interests of the team member. People become more productive when they have a real interest in what they are doing. At the same time, team members are taking initiative in their positions to eliminate steps that don’t seem to add value – they are asking “why?” about everything. They are challenging the way things have “always been done” and looking for opportunities to improve process. It is becoming a culture in the organization – one of looking for ways to improve and be better at everything. The transformation is real and pretty cool to watch and be part of.

Where are the opportunities in your organization? Can you see them? Aren’t they right in front of you? That pile of paperwork? That personnel action form? That performance appraisal? If it doesn’t make you or your organization better, then why are you spending time on it? Look for that opportunity to drive the process rather than letting it drive you.

Rob Moody is a partner with Merina+Co and consults directly with state and local governments on a variety of financial and operational projects.