In my experience, the term “smooth sailing” is an expression used to describe those rare moments that occur shortly before being bombarded by the next big wave. Challenges are inevitable, particularly for those working in STEM fields. While we can acknowledge that new challenges will crop up, each one will likely present itself with an entirely new set of circumstances that demands a unique response. Interestingly, not all challenges are inherently setbacks, although sufficiently daunting ones will certainly feel like they are. Almost every challenge is an opportunity to improve, and, if handled appropriately, you may find yourself emerging from the heat of battle more resilient than before. Whenever I find myself in the position of having to overcome either personal or professional challenges, I ruminate on situations in which people overcame razor thin odds and recall the valuable lessons that they learned along the way. This is the story of one such situation experienced by Andy Grove, the legendary CEO of the Intel Corporation from 1987 to 1998.
A Crisis Emerges
Before the mass adoption of personal computers launched humankind into the Information Age, the Intel Corporation was a quaint startup based out of Santa Clara, California. Shortly after its co-founders — Gordon Moore and Bob Noyce — raised their first round of funding in 1968, the duo quickly hired a third employee to take up the mantle of founding chief operating officer (COO): Andy Grove, a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and former co-worker. The team sought out to “build chips that performed the function of memory in computers.” At the outset, memory chips possessed a relatively meager storage capacity. The devices that they could accommodate, like digital watches, were akin to intellectual curiosities that appealed only to technology enthusiasts. As the performance of memory chips exponentially improved, they became powerful enough to be integrated into computers.
Intel maintained almost complete dominance over the global memory chip market for about a decade, but that tailwind would soon taper off and turn into a headwind. By the mid-1980’s, various Japanese semiconductor companies had spawned and had developed manufacturing capabilities that exceeded those of Intel. In an effort to acquire market share, these competitors began supplying computer manufacturers with memory chips that were sold at low prices, so as to erode Intel’s profit margins. As their bread-and-butter memory chip business began to slump, the situation devolved from concerning to existential. One thing soon became clear to Intel’s operators: They would have to pull out of the memory chip business or risk the viability of the company. Grove describes this troubling period in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive, as being akin to a corporate identity crisis.
Strategic Inflection Points
The company’s then CEO, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove boldly decided to stage a pivot and start manufacturing microprocessors — the “brain of the computer that calculates while memory chips store.” The company proceeded through the treacherous process of reorienting the business around their fledgling microprocessor division, which was based out of a remote production facility in Portland, Oregon. As Grove and Moore brought employees around to the new vision of the company and strengthened ties to IBM, business performance began to pick back up. By the end of both Moore’s and Grove’s tenures in 1998, Intel had attained market dominance in the global microprocessor market, annual revenues had ballooned to $197 billion, and it had become the seventh largest company in the world.
Andy Grove characterizes the low point of Intel’s turnaround story — the shift from memory chips to microprocessors — as a “strategic inflection point” for the company. When “business as usual” consistently failed to yield the positive outcomes that they had grown accustomed to, they realized that they had to make a fundamental change. Awareness of a crisis soon gave rise to a period of turbulence, in which Intel’s employees and management fiercely debated amongst one another. Some managers resisted the urge to change, burdened by the energy required to shift resources and retrain personnel. While their concerns were valid, the brutal truth of the situation demanded that changes be made. Complacency would guarantee that the company inflect downward into oblivion, as so many others had before them. A solution was implemented and, ultimately, the company inflected upwards to reach unprecedented heights.
Likewise, when you encounter challenges in your own life, the standard issue solutions that once worked before may be ineffective. Challenges, by definition, require that you step out of your comfort zone. This is how you know that you have encountered a strategic inflection point. What follows is a turbulent period of fierce debate, both within your own mind and with close confidants (friends, family, peers, supervisors, etc.). The goal of this debate should be to devise solutions that will help you overcome the challenge at hand. Resistance to change will be tempting, but could result in unappetizing outcomes. Therefore, it is essential that you follow through with the solution once it becomes apparent. As Andy Grove warns, these are simple concepts in theory, but are notoriously opaque in practice. Engineering an upward strategic inflection point requires appropriate action, regardless of burdensome shifts in time, energy and other resources. If the solution doesn’t work, iteratively modify the strategy until it begins to bear fruit. Confront the truth of the situation, yet at the same time, maintain an optimistic long-term outlook. Soon enough, you may emerge from the other side of the challenge, having reached new heights that had previously seemed unattainable.
For those who are interested in further reading, I strongly recommend the primary source and inspiration for this article, Only the Paranoid Survive by Andy Grove and his subsequent book High Output Management. His personal story and perspectives serve as the centerpiece for what is known as the Objectives and Key Results (OKR) approach to management, which is widely applicable to strategic problem solving in fast-growing STEM fields.
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