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Four ways to win in the age of disruption

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

History loves winners. And in an age where disruptors like Tesla, Netflix and Alibaba are lionised, it’s clear that the market is kindest to those who not only keep up with change but who instigate it. However, not every company can be a disruptor. Silicon Valley itself is rife with budding darlings and well-established powerhouses alike that have sunk to the bottom while caught in a wave of disruption.

It can be painful to watch a once-promising company circle the drain. Take, for example, MapR, a Google spinoff and erstwhile unicorn that raised $280 million from some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent venture capital firms, only to announce in May it was laying off all 122 of its employees, before Hewlett Packard Enterprises said Aug. 5 it was acquiring the data platform company for an undisclosed sum.

Tech is a brutally competitive industry. For every Facebook, there’s a MySpace; for every Waze, a MapQuest. Seventy per cent of tech startups fail, usually less than 20 months after first securing financing, according to CB Insights.

Everyone who leads, works, or invests in a tech company ought to be losing sleep over this question:

How can our company not only stay ahead of disruption but be the disrupter?

Whether a startup, an established bellwether, or somewhere in between, here are four change-management strategies I’ve learned throughout my nearly 25 years working in this extremely volatile industry:

1. Be ready to disrupt yourselves. As tempting as it can be to rigidly stick to the original business idea that launched the company and got you here,  never forget that history is filled with companies that thrived after completely reinventing themselves. Remember Netflix’s days as a low-margin DVD mail-delivery service? Or how about Google’s period as just a search engine? (A New York Times story in 2002 was headlined, “Google’s Toughest Search Is for a Business Model.” Um, I think they found one.)

This is much easier said than done, however. Challenging yourself to be more “disruptive” can feel like navigating a new city without a map; there’s no way of knowing what lies ahead, and more often than not, your path is anything but linear. A good start is to wake up every day and think, “If we don’t disrupt ourselves, it’s only a matter of time before someone else does.” It’s crucial to never get comfortable. And to constantly maintain an obsessive conviction that your vision for where the world is going may be smart, but parlaying that into a growing business opportunity can change on a dime. Think in horizons and always have some options bets that could be transformative down the road -- the difference between the industry winners and losers is the ability to evolve or transform your business model, with technology as an enabler.

2. Try not to let economic conditions distract from the vision. The news has been filled lately with concerns about a coming recession. Let’s hope, of course, the predictions don’t come true. But if they do, print out a list of the large and famous companies that started during economic downturns -- including IBM, Microsoft, and Apple – and hang it near your desk, as a reminder that if your idea is good enough, nothing can stop that train. Keep building, keep investing in the future.

My own company learned this lesson during the global financial crisis in 2008. At the time, Juniper had just hired a new CEO, and when the downturn hit, he was advised to lay off 15 per cent of the workforce and cut R&D to reduce costs. But in the face of uncertainty, he doubled down on R&D and innovation, recognising that companies must accelerate through the tough times in order to come out strong on the other side.

Harnessing the power of data

3. Harness the power of data. In this age of all things digital, there’s really no excuse for not knowing what the market is doing and what your customers want and need. Data is a company’s strongest asset, posing an opportunity for IT to be a strategic growth driver for the business. It’s the companies that can turn that data it into insights that will ultimately have a leg up. This is no longer an option. Woe to companies that still don’t get it.  Invest in harnessing your data as if your company’s life depends on it, because it does.

4. No matter what, people are your biggest asset. They say culture eats strategy for breakfast. In order to turn your disruption dream into a reality, you need a compelling and concrete vision that will get people to enlist, despite the possible risks involved. Change is hard.  If you’re lucky, you’ll have those few people who can’t wait to sink their teeth into change, but most people take more time to adapt. So, invest in your people, arm them with the required skills and make sure they know you have their back in helping them get through the change constructively.  And if they can’t or won’t make the turn, help them with their next step.

While the future of technology is largely uncertain, one thing’s for sure: change is only accelerating. The most successful companies are those that embrace the excitement of change, hone their ability to adapt, remain agile, and get energised by learning new things.

Michael Marcellin, Chief Marketing Officer, Juniper Networks

Mike Marcellin leads the global marketing team responsible for marketing Juniper's product and services portfolio.