Blindsided by Change

Making Disaster Work For You


And another year is gone like that. And not the way it was supposed to.


You know what I’m talking about. 2021 was supposed to be the year of getting back to normal. The pandemic should have been in our rearview mirror months ago.


Yes, in some ways, we’re almost there. And in an ironic sense, technologically ahead of schedule in the way that remote work and communications have been accepted as viable alternative options. I’d heard that it was projected to have taken us at least ten more years to reach that point.


But by and large … no, in real life, we’re still restricted in too many ways. The pandemic continues, with omicron now the variant du jour. We’re nearly two YEARS into it, for crying out loud. Raise your hand if you’re not sick and tired of the whole thing by now. No one wants another lockdown, but the numbers are rising, albeit of symptoms that are less severe overall. Mask mandates are still with us in many areas of the country, vaccination cards a must to show in New York if you’re going to dine out or see a show (and Broadway has closed down again, as of this writing). Covid continues to rule.


Maybe 2022 will finally see us emerge from under the pandemic’s shadow. Taking a long view, we know that this WILL pass. Eventually. We’ll look back and see where we did some things right and how in others we could have been far more effective in dealing with this pervasive virus.


When you do look back over the decades, it’s almost funny to note how we’re so good at predicting some things and absolutely clueless about others. I used to subscribe to the Futurist magazine, published by the World Future Society, because I worked in tech, enjoyed reading science fiction, and liked to see what real world futurists thought would actually come about within my lifetime. Some speculated that personal computing devices would come into their own in the early 21st century. I don’t recall many warning that a global pandemic would blindside us and derail the world economy.


Lesson here: Expect the unexpected.


We’re not going to see everything coming. Especially out of left field, like a global pandemic. But even in a field like the computer industry, where we can foresee new technology taking shape, certain developments can surprise us. And when they do, we’ll often look back to discover that we had bet on the wrong horse and now have to scramble like mad to catch up. If it’s not too late, that is.


Apple Computer wasn’t too late. Barely. When Apple was near bankruptcy in 1997, due to expensive products that were poorly aligned to what the market wanted, very few investors foresaw Apple rescuing itself (with help from Microsoft, its arch-rival!) to become incredibly profitable within a dozen years. No one, except for Steve Jobs himself, saw what was to come: the iMac, iPod, iPad, and iPhone revolution.


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While I haven’t had the pleasure of working for Apple, I did work for a few companies that learned this lesson of change – and our human unwillingness to embrace it in time - the hard way. Rev up the “way-back” machine for a trip to the late 80s/early 90s.


I was an IBM sales rep, charged with selling “big iron.” Management was pushing mainframes, while my customers were more interested in exploring distributed networking and smart terminals, later referred to as personal computers. IBM had its own line of PCs that it wasn’t quite sure what to do with. They were very highly successful at the time, but expensive. IBM still thought of itself as a mainframe company with mainframe pricing. The benefit to customers was in the “value add:” systems engineers and support, plus consulting services.


My customers, however, were primarily interested in lower-cost alternatives. They read the trade magazines, where the back pages advertised mail-order PCs. Ha! “Big Blue” management scoffed. What business in their right mind would risk their operations on cheap machines made by amateurs? Especially by this guy Michael Dell somewhere in Texas. Never heard of him. Right…. Well, we all know how that worked out. IBM finally sold off its failing PC line to Lenovo in 2005.


Here’s another lesson in learning from your customers. Or at least paying attention to what they’re saying. They are the marketplace, after all.


A few years after the IBM story, when I was working for a database company, I received a call from a customer in Research Triangle Park, the North Carolina think tank area where so many innovations were coming from at the time. And still are, I believe. My customer wanted to know if my company was on the Internet so that he could research our product line digitally. Huh? He didn’t want a handy-dandy brochure like everyone else? What a concept.