During the early part of my career, three of the most powerful and most-admired companies in the world were IBM, Intel and WalMart. Each dominated an industry. They were unstoppable giants.
Intel was the dominate supplier of chips to PCs. They even had PC suppliers advertising “Intel inside” as a selling story. Intel decided to stick with its core chip technology – x86. Good for PCs with large batteries, bad for smaller devices like phones and tablets. Ten years ago, Apple came to Intel and gave them a chance to build the chip for iPhone. Intel turned Apple down. Recently Intel announced they are laying off 11% of their workforce.
IBM has now recorded 16 straight quarters of revenue decline. When I first starting working, everyone knew the phrase “No one ever got fired for recommending IBM”. The computer industry was actually known as IBM and the Bunch (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, CDC and Honeywell). IBM was a behemoth. Other companies just hoped to pick up the scraps IBM left behind. A career at IBM was a sure sign of success. Now, IBM is an afterthought in most technology discussions.
WalMart grew to dominate retailing in the last half century. Numerous businesses – small and large- were trampled under WalMart’s huge feet. Now Walmart is fighting off rivals as diverse as Dollar General and Amazon. Its revenue growth the last six years is less than a third of its growth the six years prior.
Each giant is fighting to hold onto legacy. Who would have thought it possible?
It is fascinating to reflect on the decline of giants – the almost impregnable, all-powerful. Who could predict it? How could it possibly happen? It is a cautionary tale for all of us. We see some organization, or some person, that seemingly has it all. We cannot foresee a decline. So we assume a certain higher stature for the other, and put ourselves somewhere below them. Maybe we work for a company that has always been successful. Maybe we work for a boss who seems to be locked in to the company’s future. We can’t be as good or powerful as them, so we just stay in our little space. Maybe we envy a colleague or peer who seemingly has it all.
What is fascinating is this is a repeat of lessons learned the hard way by companies like GM, KMart, Sears and Circuit City to name a few. But how hard is it to see the decline before it happens? And to act on that knowledge early? What does it take to see and act?
Perhaps all we need is a little self-reflection.
There is a lesson for all of us here. If you are certain you have the right skills for the future, you probably need to think about adding more skills. If you know you are with a dynamic, growing company that is a market leader for a long time into the future, don’t think you will necessarily be part of that future. We all need to keep reinventing ourselves. It is sometimes exhausting to think that way. But the alternative, falling with the giants, is way more exhausting.
The other lesson is this. We build our own “giants” in our minds that are “never to be overcome”. Just because we believe some obstacle is way too large for us to surmount, is it really? That next step in finding out what we truly want in life, is it honestly so far above us that we cannot go looking for it? A weakness, a “character defect”, being frozen by circumstances to inaction – how big, honestly, are they? Maybe your giant is people you cannot please, failures you cannot forget or a future you cannot face.
Maybe today is the day to think about your inner Intel, your WalMart, your IBM. Is there something you “can’t imagine overcoming or competing with”? Look at them in the light of what they truly are. David saw Goliath in a totally different way from everyone else. It gave him the courage to approach the problem in a different way.