by Heidi Grant Halvorson

To be a successful entrepreneur – or really, a successful anything – you need to be able to recognize an opportunity when you see one. Specifically, you need to be able to identify a problem or gap, and come up with an innovative solution. (Of course you also need to be able to execute that solution, but without spotting the opportunity in the first place, you aren’t going anywhere.)

So how, exactly, does one become good at spotting opportunities?

It’s probably innate — you’re either good at that sort of thing or you’re not, you say.

Wrong. Try again.

Well, then it’s probably a matter of practice — of getting experience.

Probably not. (Hang on and I’ll explain why.)

The suspense is no doubt killing you, so I’ll go ahead and tell you the secret to recognizing opportunities: promotion focus.

As I’ve written about with Tory Higgins in HBR and in our new book, Focus, when you see your entrepreneurial venture (or your career, or your goals in general) as being about the potential for advancement, achievement and rewards, you have a promotion focus. You are promotion-focused when you think about what you might gain if you are successful — how you might end up better off.

Alternatively, if you approach your venture focused on not losing everything you’ve worked so hard for, on avoiding danger and keeping things running smoothly, you have a prevention focus. Prevention focus is good for many things — careful planning, accuracy, reliability, and thoroughness, just to name a few. But it doesn’t lead to creativity, open-mindedness, and the confidence to take chances the way promotion focus does. And as new research by Andranik Tumasjan and Reiner Braun from Germany’s TUM School of Management shows, that’s the combination you need to be an opportunity-spotter.

Tumasjan and Braun asked 254 U.K. entrepreneurs from a variety of industries to take an assessment to determine their dominant focus, and to then demonstrate their opportunity-recognition skills. They were provided with comments from real focus groups that dealt with five kinds of problems associated with footwear (durability, comfort, performance, style, and price.) After looking them over, the entrepreneurs were told to make a list of the underlying problems revealed by the comments, and to provide solutions for those problems.

The results painted a very clear picture: Promotion-focused entrepreneurs were better able to detect opportunities — i.e., they generated more solutions to identified problems. In addition, those solutions were judged by independent raters to be more innovative than prevention-focused solutions.

That’s not all. Being promotion-focused even compensated for low levels of creative and entrepreneurial confidence, which are usually considered to be essential ingredients for success. Equipped with the right focus, even low-confidence entrepreneurs were among the top performers. 

If you don’t have enough of it at the moment, there are many research-based techniques you can use to strengthen your promotion focus. Here are a few that work well:

  • Write down several goals you have for your venture (or for your career). For each goal, make a list of ways in which you will gain something if you are successful. Read through these goals and potential gains on a daily basis, or before undertaking any important task.
  • Picture yourself five or ten years down the road as you would ideally like to be. What are your aspirations? Your dreams? What do you hope to accomplish? Thinking about your ideal future self will put you in a promotion focus.
  • Reflect on your past. Think about a recent big win or accomplishment — a time when you felt really pumped up about what you were able to achieve. A time when you felt on top of the world. Thinking about our past gains puts us in a promotion focus.

The more often you use any or all of these techniques, the more automatic the shift to promotion focus will become.