Missing What’s in Front of You: Could they make that flag any bigger?

Author: Linda J. Popky

A number of years ago I had a job that required quite a bit of overseas travel. As a result, during one trip to Japan, I realized I was perilously close to filling up the allotted pages in my passport.

Anyone who’s dealt with the Passport Office of the US State Department can tell you that handling passport issues at US State Department facilities can be an incredibly long and drawn-out experience. But outside the US, these things can often be quickly taken care of at the embassy. So a colleague and I decided to make our way to the US Embassy in Tokyo one cold and rainy afternoon after our business meetings so I could get additional pages added to my passport.

Tokyo has a great subway system. I’d never been to the embassy before, but I’d always fairly good success navigating my way through the various subway lines using subway maps and guidebooks. But we had a few problems.

I’d never been anywhere near the US Embassy in Tokyo, so I was venturing into totally new territory. The streets in Tokyo are often not named and buildings there usually don’t have street addresses on them. And neither my colleague nor I spoke more than a handful of words in Japanese.

We got off the subway at what looked like the right stop and I began to plan our route by looking at the map, trying to match the layout of streets on the map with what I was seeing in front of me, locating key landmarks, and relying quite a bit on instinct. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working. After almost an hour of walking in the rain, it became apparent we were seeing the same landmarks multiple times, and going nowhere fast. It was also getting rapidly close to closing time at the Embassy – if we didn’t find our way soon, we would be out of luck.

As I looked up at my colleague to tell her I was sorry, but I just couldn’t seem to figure out where we were in relation to the embassy, I saw Noel staring at something above my head with a huge smile on her face.

“Linda,” she said. “Do you think it might be that big building behind you with that enormous American flag in front?”

Lo and behold, we had been so busy following the map to the letter that neither of us had looked up to see what was smack-dab right in front of us: The largest American flag I’d ever seen hanging from the front of the American Embassy.

How often in business are we so busy following our business plans and strategic initiatives to the letter that we fail to see the huge opportunity that has presented itself literally right in front or behind us. How often are we so focused on executing what we’ve already thought out and committed to that we miss the clear cut signs of impressive opportunities – even though they are waving in the breeze almost larger than life, right over our heads.

What can you and your organization do to ensure that you are alert to key factors in your environment? What mechanisms do you have in place to respond appropriately to the signals that business deals are close at hand – even if they aren’t mapped out in your plans? How much are you rewarding your team for being innovative and free-thinking, rather than just executing a pre-ordained course of action?

Noel and I were lucky that day: We snuck inside the Embassy just as the clock struck 4pm and I got my extra passport pages. But we nearly missed our chance because we weren’t looking up to see what was blowing in the wind.

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