John Chambers: Biggest mistake is moving too slow

Does your company move as fast as necessary to embrace change?

BusinessWeek has an interesting issue on the news stands on "Game-Changing Ideas for Business." The editors have put a lot of different ideas together to foster innovation that go beyond the obvious cost-cutting that has been happening lately. While not every idea mentioned is going to be applicable to all companies, there are a few gems in here that might be applicable in your own business or IT organization.

One that jumped off the page for me was a comment by Cisco CEO John Chambers about making change in a downturn:

[When] the dot-com bubble burst, the Cisco chief executive watched the networking giant's stock drop 86%, from 80 to just over 11 by September 2001. Chambers laid off thousands of employees, shrank the number of suppliers, and simplified or jettisoned many products. He also radically changed the way he managed, turning a command-and-control hierarchy into a more democratic organizational structure. The company emerged from that recession more profitable than ever and went on to outperform many tech rivals. In retrospect, Chambers wonders if he could have done even more. "Without exception," he says, "all of my biggest mistakes occurred because I moved too slowly."

It may be that in this downturn, John Chambers cements his reputation as one of the greatest leaders the tech industry has ever know, alongside Andy Grove of Intel, who was famous for his view "Only the Paranoid Survive."

But think about it. If Chambers is concerned that he needs to move faster, what does that mean for others in the IT industry? Unfortunately, I think many large organizations take a "wait and see" attitude to change. They focus on the quarter at hand and think, well, maybe next year, we can do something about it if necessary.

No doubt there are more than a few Silicon Valley companies wondering how their situation might be different if they had acted faster and more decisively earlier. Companies get disrupted because they either don't see changes in the market happening or they think that somehow they will be immune and the good old days will come back again. But in most industries, and especially in the tech sector, that's wishful thinking.

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