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Marginal: A Lesson from Bill Gates

"One thing that I like about the Microsoft culture is that we wake up every day thinking about companies like Wang or Digital Equipment or Compaq, that were huge companies that did very well and they literally have disappeared.

"One thing that I like about the Microsoft culture is that we wake up every day thinking about companies like Wang or Digital Equipment or Compaq, that were huge companies that did very well and they literally have disappeared. Got bought up, you know went into a direction that was a dead end for them. So we have that lesson and we are always saying to ourselves: We have to innovate. We've got to come up with that breakthrough."—Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and chief software architect, speaking with Peter Jennings of ABC News (www.abcnews.com), February 16, 2005

And so I wonder...like him or not, isn't the approach that Bill Gates describes—one where you always keep in mind that there were plenty of companies that have gone by the wayside because they were enamored with what they were doing but the market disagreed—something that we should all keep in mind, no matter what we do in business? Whether you're at a supplier or OEM, there is always someone who wants to take away the business. Hell, they don't merely want to: They are actively working toward getting it. This competitor may be a company you know. Or a company you've never heard of. It may be a company down the street. Or one on the other side of the world. Whether you're aware of them or not doesn't matter all that much. They're there. Always.

Some people seemingly say, "Aw, I work for one of the biggest ____________ companies. I don't have anything to worry about." That's what they think. For now. How many Wang or Digital Equipment or Compaq designers, engineers, manufact-urers, managers, executives, suppliers, etc. had the same notion? Those companies weren't trivial in their arenas. They were true players, often at the top of their game. Now they're but stats in the annals of things past.

Say what you will about Bill Gates, but here's a billionaire who probably stays up late at night figuring how his company is going to come up with new, better or different products in order for him to make more money. Not that he needs it. But if he isn't always trying to stay a step ahead, it is far too easy to get two steps behind. And then more so. Until irrelevance sets in. And so I wonder...how many executives at the OEMs and supplier companies are truly of the same mindset as Bill Gates? How many are truly saying to themselves "We have to innovate. We've got to come up with that breakthrough"? And how many of them are simply thinking about keeping the status quo to their best of their abilities, working not to advance but working to stay in place? Treading water. For the present. How many of them exhibit the kind of relentless zeal that is necessary to truly compete in what has got to be one of the most demanding of industries? You know them. Or have seen them. Or have read about them. In how many of them do you detect that undeniable drive? How many of them are waking up every day...and sleepwalking through the rest of it? But let's not just think about the top guy. Let's think about all of the people at the lower levels. All the way to you. (Unless, of course, you're at the top.)

What is your attitude toward what you do? Are you trying to think of the ways and means to improve things—not just incrementally improve, but actually come up with a breakthrough? A breakthrough isn't limited to just big things (e.g., a new vehicle) but can be improved customer service or a better way for there to be cross-departmental communications or a new technique for getting a task completed in less time (or the task completely made irrelevant). Or are you part of a culture that is willing to let the other guy do it? That other guy wants your job. And unless you do something about it, he or she is going to get it. 

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