brownies on a plate with candles in them

Getting Busy on White Space

Step 1

Live things grow, change and move. Conventional wisdom and everyday observation tell us nature hates a vacuum. For businesses, white space gives us opportunities to grow, to stay alive, and to fill empty places in the market with new products and services which often leads to years of sales growth and upside brand penetration.

This four-part series explores the serious business of getting busy on white space - both the creative impulse and brainstorming at the beginning and the nuts-and-bolts of bringing something new into the world and helping it succeed. In this first installment, we explore ways of finding your white space; in the second installment, we'll focus on formulating a plan. In the third installment, we'll determine the "how" behind plan execution, and in the final one, we'll cover execution, tracking and modifying the plan for success.

Why Think about White Space?

The long-term health and success of any business depends on continuously assessing and addressing its white spaces - things that don't grow, change, and move eventually die -- including businesses.

Successful leadership and executive teams strive for a level of Unconscious competence in this area:

  • Unconscious INcompetence - Teams that don't realize they should be watching for opportunities and don't see them when they arise. (They "don't know what they don't know.")

  • Conscious INcompetence - Teams that realize there's white space but can't see it in their own businesses or are so engaged in fulfilling their current obligations that they can't act on white spaces. (They know what they don't know.)

  • Conscious competence - Teams that know they must watch for opportunities and begin to act on them, even if awkwardly, haphazardly or inconsistently. (They know what they know.)

  • Unconscious competence - Teams for whom white space is the name of the game, who don't have to remind themselves to watch for it, but who constantly pursue the next possibility. (They don't know what they know. They do the right thing without thinking about it.)

Where does your team fall on this continuum? Finding the spaces that allow your business to grow, whether you're trying out a new approach with an existing brand, or a new marketplace, or you're launching a whole new brand into foodservice, does much more than just give you a leg up on your competition. Acknowledging where you are today is the first step towards progress.

Pursuing white space opportunities builds your company's momentum outwardly, in the industry. Not only do your competitors take your company more seriously, but customers do as well. Both your rivals and your fans watch to see what you'll do next. And the internal impact on your team may matter even more - new opportunities keep everyone feeling invested and energized.

Taking the First Steps

You may think you know where to look for white space, but even if you have great instincts, you need more than just a hunch.

  • Gather Data. This should be both internal and external data. Even before you begin to analyze the data you have, assess whether you have enough data. What else do you need to know, and where else could you look?

  • Assemble a diverse multi-functional team to ferret out and uncover the best opportunities. Once you have your team assembled, look around the room - if everyone looks the same, you're going to cut your success rate by 75% or more. Widen your view of the playing field with a wider range of players.

  • Set preliminary estimates and costs to obtain. Once you've identified places you might go, figure out what it might cost you to get there.

  • Ask yourselves some questions. What might happen if you do this? What might happen if you don't do it? Think about and answer those questions as fully as you can.

  • Pick your prize. Considering all of the information you've gathered; determine the specific area you intend to address.

In the link at the bottom of this article, Hubspot offers some great options when picking your prize.

"Innovate upon what you offer customers. Target a different audience segment. Ask customers how they use your products. Find where your company is different."

Identifying Your Leverage Points

Once you've found the right space to grow into or fill, assess the leverage you may have in that space.

  • What existing assets do you have? These might be relationships you've built during your career, market leadership in another part of the portfolio, the superior quality of your product, your USP, or other assets. How are you already equipped to succeed in the new space?

  • What close-in assets can you easily obtain? Consultants, additional training for your team, equipment or software that is easily acquired can help insure your success in the white space area.

  • Who can help you? Could your company partner or co-op with companies already in the space?

  • And if none of these exist right now, what leverage points do you need to add if you want to capture the white space you've identified? What will obtaining them cost?

Whatever the white space you've identified, you likely see some affinities with what you're already doing. Take stock of those connections and ways of cooperating or connecting with what's already there.

Raw Honesty - The Obstacles to Identify and Overcome

people bringing puzzle pieces together

Here's the real truth about what's most likely to hold your company back from white space and innovation. It's the same thing that's most likely to stop any of us from making changes and growing in our individual lives: self-talk and internal squawk.

Internal cultures may include a judge and jury like the "we've tried that" police, who have an investment in keeping things the way they are now, and in assuring themselves (and others) that they've covered all the bases in the past. These folks may even be fairly well known as "the sales prevention team". Or you may have reluctance about the basic uncertainty of trying something new or about taking any chances at all - can you guarantee a return on the investments required to explore something new?

Be smart about helping people think differently and do things differently. We all crave a balance of stability and change - and we all appreciate reassurance even when we see an opportunity's potential. Fully assessing the opportunity, then, not only fulfills a responsibility, but allows for confidence throughout the team about your idea's viability. There is no "winging it," and no throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. Impatience and excitement about an opportunity can tempt even the best of us, but thoughtful and thorough assessment can help the whole team buy into a new venture. Don't rush through or take shortcuts breezing past the assessment phase.

On the other hand, people may prefer to hang back, to wait and see, but leadership can't allow wait- and-see'ers, either. These are the very people who will be executing, and who will drive internal & external teams to success. Better for the executive team to complete a thorough due diligence and assessment, and then force a decision - whether thumbs up or thumbs down - than to move out of the assessment phase without team buy-in.

Most white space efforts ignore this number one reason for failure. It turns out the biggest obstacle to succeeding isn't some looming competitor ready to take you down, or a distributor who just can't get behind it - it's us. It's you. It's the team of naysayers that sits inside your four walls.

Team buy-in is born during this assessment phase. So set yourself up for success from the get-go by getting this right. Involving team members in the process from the beginning allows them to adopt and adapt to the changes and builds their investment.

And remember, it's not what hasn't happened or should've happened. It's what you do next that matters.

Other supporting facts & resources

Check out these resources for more information:

Where Is Your White Space? ( This article is aged, but still rings true. This article is aged, but still rings true.

How to Find Your Business's White Space Opportunities (

What is white space analysis? The ultimate guide to addressing unmet customer needs (

Julie spent 25 years in sales and marketing for the French's Food Company and McCormick, and then just over 4 years as a broker in senior & executive leadership roles across sales, marketing, digital & business development. She has interviewed over 100 potential manufacturers - she knows what she's talking about!
Posts Navigation