Interview with Inder Sidhu

The current business landscape is ripe with dichotomies. Conventional wisdom says that organizations wrestling with two divergent choices will more likely succeed if they select one option over the other and pursue it to fruition. But is that really true? In his new book, Doing Both, technology industry veteran and business strategist Inder Sidhu argues that traditional thinking is often wrong. Tradeoffs and compromises hinder success and limit potential. Instead of wrestling between two difficult options, Inder argues that a better way is to do both.

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What does doing both mean?

Doing both means refusing to accept that tradeoffs are the only way. In simple terms, it means consciously choosing to pursue two seemingly opposing activities at the same time, each for the benefit of the other.

At Cisco, we view opportunities along a continuum and adapt accordingly. More often than not, that means doing two things at once, such as pursuing traditional business customers and consumers, nurturing teams and superstars, and producing sustaining and disruptive innovation. This approach is not about avoiding a tough decision. Tension between complementary alternatives is healthy. It also creates a multiplier effect where each choice strengthens the other. Instead of balanced compromise between two objectives, you get a mutually reinforcing multiplier in which each side makes the other better—a flywheel effect.

What is the relevance of doing both in today’s business world?

Doing both is practical advice for leaders seeking answers to the challenging questions of how to move their businesses forward in the face of new realities. Think about business today: As the economic recovery gains momentum, leaders find themselves in a time of great upheaval.

If you are in the healthcare industry, you can improve patient care and reduce costs. If you’re in manufacturing, you can increase productivity and lower greenhouse emissions. And if you’re in the public sector, you can expand access to information and protect the privacy of your constituents.

In almost every scenario, the best approach is to do both—and not just in product development, but in employee relations, customer service, partner management, and more.

How does doing both apply beyond business?

You can find examples in most areas of life. Doing both holds true in sports, in nature, and in business—in fact, in most aspects of life. Gymnasts need strength and flexibility. Sports teams win with offense and defense. Ecosystems depend on both prey and predators. Car makers focus on safety and performance. Parents give their children roots and wings. And a successful business prioritizes growth and profitability. Innovation and operational excellence.

Doing both could be interpreted to mean “avoid making decisions.” Is that a concern?

No, not at all. Doing both is not a substitute for decision making—just the opposite. It requires a conscious decision, careful planning, and artful execution.

Doesn’t some of your advice fly in the face of conventional wisdom?

Yes. Conventional wisdom is often about “not invented here” and “core competencies.” But these ideals don’t cut it in a world that is more complicated, more global, and more collaborative than ever before. Disruptive innovations, new business models, and unforeseen challenges are impacting almost every industry. Business leaders who believe they are immune to these realities because of their niche markets or commanding market shares may not be prepared to master the multiple disciplines needed to succeed today. While unconventional, doing both is the only way to deal with today’s market realities.

What companies are following the doing both approach?

Not surprisingly, many of the companies that are prevailing in the market today are doing both. Apple simultaneously introduces new business models—take the iTunes music store, for example—and fine-tunes existing ones, such as its iterative improvements to the iPod music devices.

Then there is General Electric (GE)—an organization that has increased its footprint in established countries while pursuing opportunities in emerging countries. GE Medical tried to sell imaging products developed in the West in China. But they were too expensive. It had a team of engineers in China develop products for the local market, with great success. These lower cost innovations have since been exported to established countries, where they are now sold as alternatives to GE’s more feature-rich offerings. By sharing innovation across borders, GE realizes a force multiplier effect from doing both.Cisco is seeing the same results in its engineering labs, as disruptive and sustaining innovations produce transformative value—together. To ensure that its breakthrough TelePresence solution gained market acceptance, for example, Cisco had to make it easy to use. So the company turned to Call Manager—a sustaining innovation that it developed to run phone calls over the Internet. With this, a sales director in New York can host a live meeting with a customer in Shanghai with just the touch of a button.

What happens to companies that don’t do both?

I argue that companies often “stick to their knitting” when they cannot solve difficult challenges, such as developing new business models while fine-tuning existing ones. Had Blockbuster succeeded at doing both—nurturing its legacy brick-and-mortar business model and building a new one for online rentals—it wouldn’t be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy today. Doing both can help sustain an organization through difficult times and magnify its successes in good times. But it compels leaders to embrace that which comes naturally and that which often does not. That calls for awareness and courage, not indecision.

How are most leaders trained to deal with tough choices?

Most leaders are taught to be strong, focused, and disciplined. When sizing up a new opportunity or assessing a competitive challenge, they instinctively narrow their scope. There’s nothing wrong with being focused, of course, except when it creates conditions that prevent leaders from seeing alternatives or taking prudent risks.

Leaders miss opportunities for profits and growth when they choose alternatives or compromise in their decision-making. Today’s market dynamics require additional strengths—flexibility, for example. More progressive organizations are training decision makers to recognize that there are steep consequences to making poor tradeoffs. There’s an opportunity cost associated with the option not chosen, among other things. Smart organizations overcome this by training their leaders to see beyond the norm and pursue multiple objectives simultaneously.

How do you suggest people get started with doing both?

To do both, you should reconsider how you make decisions and ask yourself some questions: Why do I do things a certain way? What options have I failed to consider? What opportunities am I missing?

Think about the last time you struggled between two good alternatives. Maybe you chose to lower costs rather than increase quality. Or perhaps you opted for green manufacturing at the expense of higher profits. Now think about the opportunity cost of the option you didn’t choose.

Better quality might have improved your customer satisfaction. And higher profits could have been invested back in the business—perhaps even toward sustainability initiatives.

The first step in doing both is recognizing—and refusing—false tradeoffs, and then finding the complementary elements that create the multiplier effect.

Why did you write this book? Why now?

When I first began work on this book at the end of 2008, the world was in a different place. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, for example, hovered around 9,000, but it would soon lose 2,500 points. Layoffs were in the headlines, and many executives were hunkered down. Having worked through several recessions, I turned my thoughts to the future. In time, I knew, most business leaders would, too. When they did, I wanted to have something for them to read that could serve them in good times and in bad.

Since many organizations last thought about expansion and new opportunities in the mid-2000s, a lot has changed. Technology certainly has. And so have many organizational priorities. Environmental sustainability is part of our every day conversation more than it was a few years ago. And so is the idea that a successful organization must “do good” in addition to simply doing well. To me, these new paradigms demanded a new way of thinking. And so I reflected on my own personal evolution from engineer to practitioner to thought leader. When I did, it struck me how often “doing both” helped advance not only my career but the organizations that I worked for, as well. Conversely, when I analyzed the setbacks and disappointments that I have witnessed over the years, it struck me how many could be traced to false tradeoffs and poor compromises. It was the combination of timing and experiences that fueled my desire to write Doing Both.

Does doing both apply in other aspects of life as well?

Absolutely. If you have children, don’t you try to provide them wings to help them soar and roots to keep them grounded? Sure you do. You also, no doubt, try to achieve some semblance of balance between your work life and your home life. You want to feed your mind and satisfy your senses, too. And so on and so on. In many respects, doing both can be applied in our personal lives as much, if not more, than our professional lives. In my case, I am a son of the east (India) and a father in the west. So I strive to respect time-honored traditions and embrace progress.

Can you share an example of where “doing both” helps you in your personal life?

There are several, but allow me to tell you about one that paved the way for me to come to the United States. As a 15-year old, I dreamed of attending the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)—India’s finest engineering school. But the odds were not great: the school’s acceptance rate was less than one percent. To bolster my chances, I set my sights on acing the entrance exams. A meticulous planner, I decided to enroll in an advanced study program. But there was a problem. The preparatory class was in Delhi—six hours from my small town. In all my life, I had never been to a big city. The thought of visiting one, let alone living there, was daunting. And I had no place to sleep. My family couldn’t afford an apartment or hotel, and we knew no one with whom I could stay. As luck would have it, my father found a place for me to stay at an army base. Uncertain of what to expect, I boarded the bus and headed for the city. When I arrived in Delhi, I found there was no bed for me, however. Instead, I was pointed to a veranda without walls and told to make do. Now, I could have turned around and gone home. But I didn’t. In addition to preparing meticulously for my entrance exams, I learned to improvise as well. I made a bed from some blankets, and fashioned a desk from old boxes. Thanks to my extra studies, I was able to gain admittance to IIT, and eventually make my way to the United States.

Doing both—meticulous preparation and spontaneous improvisation—literally and figuratively changed my life.

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Author proceeds from sales of Doing Both will go to charity.