What the man from Intel said, and why it affects us all, all the time.

Andrew Grove was one of the great thinkers of the 20th century business world.  The man whom, it is said, Steve Jobs called for advice when he was considering returning to be Apple’s CEO.

Andy Grove’s most famous comment was in fact the title of his most famous book, “Only the paranoid survive,” in which he said (among many other wonderful things), “If you’re wrong, you will die. But most companies don’t die because they are wrong; most die because they don’t commit themselves. They fritter away their valuable resources while attempting to make a decision. The greatest danger is in standing still”.

I thought of all this after I heard the comment that storing valuable information on paper was a “paranoid” activity given that we now have so much digital storage capacity in the cloud.  And it was that which took me on to the notion of that quote – “if you’re wrong…”

And that really seems to sum up storage.  You might feel that you don’t need to store paper any more and that digital storage is more than enough.  Except, if you are wrong, then you could lose a variety of valuable assets and find that no one but no one wants to be your friend when Revenue and Customs come calling and all your records have gone.

In fact. that leads me on to another Andy Grove comment: “In technology, whatever can be done will be done”.  And since he ran Intel, he knows a thing or two about technology.

But just because it can be done, doesn’t mean we have to use it.  It is a bit like personalisation of emails and sales letters.  It can be done – so people do it – without looking to see what effect it has.  In fact the research shows that writing “Dear Bob” at the head of a sales letter or email to someone you don’t know actually reduces the chances of Bob reading it.  (Especially if his name is John.)

It therefore seems to me that there is a danger, because this “whatever can be done will be done” approach tends to make most of us think that IT is infallible.  Yes, it is agreed, it can all go wrong, but we’ve got backups haven’t we?

Well, “up to a point” as Evelyn Waugh once wrote.

And since I am doing Andy Grove quotes, this leads me onto another one.  “How can you motivate yourself to continue to follow a leader when he appears to be going around in circles?”

Yes, well, you can’t.

The whole point is that we relax when things are going well, whereas in fact what we ought to be doing is redoubling our efforts to ensure that things don’t then fall down flat.

Grove escaped from Hungary when it was a communist country and adopted the notion that paranoia, instead of being a really negative way of seeing the world as everyone had previously thought, was actually quite a positive vision to have.

So as the company changes one has to reconsider options and be wary.  But that does not mean that everything that was old is thrown out.  Paranoia can involve not trusting the new technology as well as not trusting other people.  And that is where we come back to paper storage.

In a sense Andy Grove was a Darwinist – in the sense that Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

The world changes, paper storage looks outmoded, everything is going onto computers, the cloud becomes the place where everything is stored, and then suddenly people get worried.  Many contracts these days stipulate that a supplier who is working with vital data must declare where it is stored and must not store it in the cloud.  The people who survive are the ones who still have back-ups on paper.

Which leads to my final point about Andy Grove.  He said that business data is only relevant to understanding the firm’s past.  It can’t be used to predict the future.

We don’t know where it is all going, and because of that we need to be cautious about adopting only the future and not also using the tried and trusted of the past.

After all, only the paranoid survive.

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