Learn to see the opportunity

Many years ago, when I was at primary school, the local priest came to visit and told a story which has stuck with me to this day. Even now I’m not entirely sure if it was intended as a parable or a joke, but I suspect the reality is a little of both.

You are more than likely familiar with it yourself, but I’ll include it here for the sake of completeness:

A storm descends on a small town, and the downpour soon turns into a flood. As the waters rise, the local priest kneels in prayer on the church porch, surrounded by water. By and by, one of the townsfolk comes up the street in a canoe.

"Better get in, Father. The waters are rising fast."

"No," says the priest . "I have faith in the Lord. He will save me."

Still the waters rise. Now the priest is up on the balcony, wringing his hands in supplication, when someone else pulls up in a motorboat.

"Come on, Father. We need to get you out of here. The levee's gonna break any minute."

Once again, the priest is unmoved. "I shall remain. The Lord will see me through."

After a while the levee breaks, and the flood rushes over the church until only the steeple remains above water. The priest is up there, clinging to the cross, when a helicopter descends out of the clouds, and the co-pilot calls down to him through a megaphone.

"Grab the ladder, Father. This is your last chance."

Once again, the priest insists the Lord will deliver him.

And, predictably, he drowns.

A pious man, the priest goes to heaven. After a while he gets an interview with God, and he asks the Almighty, "Lord, I had unwavering faith in you. Why didn't you deliver me from that flood?" God shakes his head. "What did you want from me? I sent you two boats and a helicopter."

I think this story was initially presented to me as a teaching that God works in mysterious ways, but I’ve come to realise in my working life that it’s equally applicable that we must see the opportunity presented to us by each challenge we face.

I was most recently reminded of this when I was approached by one of my team who wanted to discuss some concerns. This individual felt that while other members of the team had been progressing and working on interesting new projects, they themselves were stagnating and delivering little value. It wasn’t until I pointed out that they had wilfully avoided all technical spikes and stretch goals that had been in recent sprints that they realised they had fallen foul of a reluctance to leave their comfort zone.

Instead of selecting some of these more challenging items from the backlog (that would have naturally led to progression and development) they had continued to opt for work items that were “known” and “safe”. With this realisation the developer went away, and I’m happy to report that the individual in question now seems happier in their work.

I know from personal experience that it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of choosing the easy path of less challenging work, and when we do so we hold ourselves back. When working in a small internal development team, the opportunities to develop and progress are not always forthcoming, and it’s therefore doubly important to spot such opportunities when they arise.

Likewise, it’s not always easy to see an opportunity for what it is, especially when they present themselves in the form of a challenge, and I believe it’s one of our key duties to help our teams learn to see the opportunities as and when they present themselves.

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