When caught in a bind, ask what your successor would do


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In 1984, Andy Groves, President of Intel, was faced with a dilemma: should they exit from the memory business and put their faith in microprocessors? Since the 1970s, Intel made their name in the memory business, building hard-drives and floppy disks. Then in the late 70s and early 80s, Intel developed a new business in microprocessors, and when IBM went to market with their new desktop computers, they opted to go with Intel’s microprocessors. Yet, that business was still fledgling and the memory business dwarfed microprocessors in the order of hundreds! By 1985, there was still no sign that microprocessors would be the game changer for Intel, although it was growing at a healthy clip. A study trip to Japan should have made the case for Groves: the Japanese were manufacturing finer quality memory disks and at ever increasing capacity. In fact, in one building alone, the ground floor may be making 64K memory disks, the next floor 128K, and the floor above it, 256K. The Japanese were making them better, faster and cheaper than Intel was. It was time for action!

Yet, by the spring of 1985, no decision had been made. Intel was caught up in corporate no-man’s-land, where powerful memory business unit heads were resisting the change to microprocessors. Even if they weren’t making it better than the Japanese, they didn’t have anything better to offer. While the microprocessor business was growing very well, it was a mere fraction of the memory business. How could it ever replace the hole that the behemoth business that was memory would leave behind if it was dropped?

At the height of the impasse, Groves was discussing the matter with Gordon Moore, Intel Chairman and CEO. Then a thought hit him. He asked, “What if the Board were to fire us and bring in a new President and CEO? What would he do?” Moore replied without flinching, “He would get rid of memory.” Suddenly, in a flash of brilliance, the impasse was broken and the answer was clear; Intel had to jettison memory and cast all their lot on microprocessors. And that was what they did, amidst huge outcry and uncertainty. But what a decision it was! On hindsight we know how big a decision it was, and “Intel Inside” became the biggest marketing campaign ever for Intel, raking in billions of dollars!

What happened?

The key that helped Groves and Moore make the right decision was to shift their frame. The minute they stood outside of their decision, and asked what their successor would do, the decision became crystal clear. Without the baggage that the successor would have, he could make this decision without feeling the weight of politics and relationships on the line. Yet Groves realized that he too could make that decision, so long as he could detach himself from the short-term emotions that held him down. And that was indeed what he did to great success.

You can do this too! Whenever you feel that you may be caught in the quagmire of indecision, ask what your successor would do. Without the baggage of short-term emotion, you too can get to a state of clarity to make the right decision. That was what Groves did. And that is what you can too.

Story taken from Decisive: How to make better choices in life and work, by Chip and Dan Heath.

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