Thirty-five years ago, Andrew Grove found himself “wandering in the valley of death”, leading Intel’s huge but floundering memory chip business. Eventually he asked his chairman, Gordon Moore (of Moore’s Law) an empowering question. “If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what would he do?”
Moore replied without hesitation: “He would get us out of [memory chips].” They did just that, overcoming pain to transform Intel into the world’s leading micro-processor company.
Intel succeeded because Grove’s question tapped into deep knowledge. It helped to overcome groupthink, status quo bias, loss aversion and a host of other well-understood social and psychological behaviours that usually leave us unable even to discuss big problems especially when change is needed. And he was blessed with an environment in which his question could be asked and answered in safety.
Most businesses face an existential crisis framed by Covid-19 and the Climate Emergency. Moore's deep knowledge was of the IT world and that was enough to see the new opportunity within it. Had the opportunity been outside his experience, he would not have found a solution even though he was asked an excellent question.
To use words I dislike, he had deep knowledge of the IT 'paradigm' and was able to move Intel within it. But had the problem needed a paradigm shift, he might well have lacked the experience and perspectives to see it.
Some will solve the current crisis within the current paradigm. But many will need to shift outside their current paradigms, for example the travel, leisure and energy sectors. To achieve this, leaderships will need people who think and know things that current leaders do not know and may never have thought about - or even openly despised.
So to my question. What if leaders were to create the conditions to empower their boards and other internal fora to answer Grove's question safely, before listening - with care and respect - to no-holds-barred answers and discussing their implications?
Or can you devise a more penetrating question for our times?