When the former USA president took a Sharpie marker and redrew a hurricane forecast map to cover up a mistake he’d made, my family were more than amused. Turns out my distaste for admitting a mistake is a favourite joke in our family. Rather than forcing me to admit that I may not have been “right” (impossible I know) they now suggest that sometimes I may be just a little bit “left”. (I’m not using those terms in the political sense.) The nice part about being a little “left” is it doesn’t force me use that dreaded word that starts with “W”. Talk about good marketing!
Being able to admit you’re a little “left” on a subject area is an important trait in a good leader. In a world that is swimming in data, the new smart is the ability to spin information into knowledge and pivot quickly to form new business strategies. It’s no longer enough to know – one has to do and rethink and do again. Watch how two industry titans handled challenges to their business, one digging in, the other pivoting to a new business model. Meet a couple of brainiacs, Mike Lazaridis and Bill Gates.
Mike Lazaridis is the brilliant founder of Blackberry (Research in Motion). The story of Blackberry reminds us that being smart isn’t enough. Mr. Lazaridis foresaw the possibility of a cell phone being used for more than verbal communication and added the ability to read email on your phone. Blackberry destroyed the incumbent market leader and at one point was Canada’s largest company. This is all an unbelievable achievement, but it is not the legacy of Mr. Lazaridis. Instead, he will always be remembered for his inability to adapt. Mike Lazaridis couldn’t get his mind around the idea that a phone could also surf the internet, convinced that such an alteration would only kill the battery. Lazaridis couldn’t get on board with pursuing the research which would basically turn the phone into a hand held computer. It was a strategic misstep and Blackberry faded off the tech map faster than a dead phone battery.
Bill Gates needs no introduction but the back story on Microsoft is fascinating. Without a last minute about face to embrace the internet, Microsoft’s future could have turned out very differently. Microsoft was founded by Gates when he purchased an operating system (OS) called DOS and convinced IBM build to build their computers around it. The upstart Microsoft exploded onto the tech market and today is one of the world’s most valuable companies.
The first big market challenge for Microsoft came from Steve Job’s ‘Apple’ Computer when they launched their MAC OS. The OS was so brilliant it forced Microsoft to shift gears and create Windows which many of us still use today. An even bigger test for Gates came from a little company called Netscape. At the time the internet was new and the superb minds at Netscape had developed a way of rendering images on the Web, creating the first widely used web browser. Initially, Microsoft ignored this growing technology seeing it as a passing fad but then Bill Gates had an epiphany. He wrote an internal memo stating the internet is “crucial to every part of our business” and “the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC”. 1 If Gates hadn’t reassessed his position and changed his mind about the internet, we can only speculate where Microsoft would be today?
What we can learn from one company that was able to adapt and another that stood still when the market shifted:
- The ability to adapt to new circumstances is a mission critical skill: Adapting to new information has been key to Microsoft’s success and the downfall of Blackberry.
- Preserving your ego impedes good decision making: An open mind is imperative in a rapidly changing world and can help you change with it.
- Being a little bit “left” should just be a stepping stone to getting it right: You will be better poised to grab opportunities if you can admit when you’re wr..wro..wr***g. (Ok I’m still working on it!!)
Adam Grant in his book “Think Again” argues that there is another kind of smart. This kind of smart we don’t measure in university degrees or exams. It’s the ability to adapt and re-think. He states “Rethinking is a skill set but it’s also a mindset”. If Covid has taught us anything it’s that it’s no longer good enough to know … one must adapt. What have you done to adapt to this new world?
1. May 26, 1995: Gates, Microsoft Jump on ‘Internet Tidal Wave’ | WIRED
2. Think Again – Adam Grant