“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
“(Remote working is) an aberration that we’re going to correct as soon as possible”
Three statements by three men in the process of missing a paradigm shift happening right in front of their eyes.
Thomas Watson, President of IBM, in 1943
Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, in 1977
David Solomon, CEO of Goldman Sachs, in 2021
They had a lot in common. They were all smart and experienced people at the very top of their professions, with long track records of success – and they were all wrong.
They could not accept the evidence of change before them because it did not fit into their existing paradigm.
Which is rather ironic, as each of them had been introduced innovations and paradigm shifts of their own.
David Solomon is not alone in making this error, recent surveys suggest the majority of CEOs share his views, even if they don’t express them as forthrightly. He did, and with pleasing succinctness, which is why I chose it.
These people are literally unable to envisage a world of work different to the one they have known. They cannot see how people can build a career without being office-based and having frequent in-person interactions; how relationships can be built other than face-to-face; how learning can occur if people are not in a classroom, or sitting alongside someone in an office. They simply do not believe it can happen.
They respond to evidence that contradicts their existing paradigm by ignoring it, denying it or refuting its validity. When challenged on their assertions that being office-centric and in-person is the only way, essentially, to do business, they create baseless justifications and false arguments.
When these justification and arguments are challenged, they just double down on their assertions because they must, at all costs, protect the paradigm that has served them so well. The world simply must not be allowed to change.
It’s a deeply psychological motivation. Logic left the building a long time ago, we are now in the realms of emotion and existential crisis.
So how does this end?
IBM got lucky, they were beaten to the mainframe market by Remington Rand but managed to deliver a product soon afterwards and grab the emerging market through their much bigger and superior sales force.
Digital Equipment Corporation missed out on the PC revolution, got overtaken by IBM and new entrants like Compaq, who eventually took them over. Olson had to resign as the company went into steep decline.
So what of Goldman Sachs and the rest of the ‘Return To Office’ crowd? How will they fare? Will they get lucky or will they perish?
The paradigm has shifted and, as in any earthquake, the shocks will bring some of the edifices tumbling to the ground. There could be some big names amongst the rubble.