Swimming Upstream Against the Popular Flow


Swimming Upstream Against the Popular Flow

Several years ago, at a VIM Executive Coaching seminar, I made the acquaintance of a man who had a key leadership position with a surgical instrument manufacturer. The company was developing a robotic surgical device that promised a great breakthrough in the way in which tumors of the urinary tract could be treated. The manufacturing schedule was tight, and there was a push to market as a competitive product was in the pipeline and naturally, they wanted to gain market share over the would-be competition.

Say that again?
There was just one problem; I hesitate to call it a “little problem,” for it could have had major implications. Apparently, there was a flaw with the security of the system. It was possible for the circuitry to be remotely hacked. How possible? I cannot say, as it was proprietary information, but it was much more than “just theoretical.” A hacker, in a distant land, or even someone in the next office, could have accessed the equipment and taken away control from the robotic operator. As microsurgery is so exact, just an errant move of a millimeter or two could have been catastrophic.

As the product launch was nearing, all of the executives gathered in a meeting room to discuss the project. My acquaintance, who was head of cyber-security was already unpopular among the engineering and marketing types due to his constant reminders that the robotic surgical device was not secure and should not be launched until it could be made secure. In fact, in a preliminary meeting he was challenged as to why he was so pessimistic about the product. He was even called “Gloomy Gus.”

In this high-level meeting he again challenged the wisdom of launching the product, and he was soundly shouted down as being negative. Even the CEO said he was overly cautious. He decided then and there to begin exploring other career options and soon after he resigned and left the company. Though the CEO made a half-hearted effort to encourage him to stay, he made it clear he had not been valued. He was out of work for just a few months but he was happy to have left the company for how they had reacted to him pointing out product flaws.

Embarrassing rather than Catastrophic
It is worthy to note that the product’s launch did not immediately result in any problems. They sold a respectable number, and at first “Gloomy Gus” was the object of mockery. However, something embarrassing and impactful occurred at a trade show about six months later. In those six months, cyber-security had suddenly become a major issue. Not only were credit card companies and department stores hacked, but home appliances such as refrigerators, machinery and medical equipment.

At the trade show, the robotic surgical equipment competitor did a side-by-side security comparison of its product versus the product of the company that had the early launch. They showed buyers in great detail how the original product could indeed be hacked. It was quite a display to see the robotic arm of the original product flailing away as though it was a reaping wheat rather than doing micro-surgery! It was quite an embarrassment.

In speaking to my acquaintance, I asked him if the trade show demonstration and subsequent product crash served as a kind of vindication. He was quite classy in his reply:

“No, I gained no pleasure from it. People who had been working for me were quite disappointed that we weren’t being respected. Interestingly, some in the company turned on them for not being forceful enough with pointing out the security flaws! They couldn’t win.”

Then I asked him if it wouldn’t have been easier had he simply gone along with the flow. Certainly, he would have kept his rather lucrative job.

“I responded to them with heartfelt honesty,” he said. “Had I simply become a cheerleader I might have held onto my job in the short term, but I would have been seen as being responsible for the security failures. I would have just reacted to their pressure. I would have spent years reacting to their insults. This way I retained my status in the industry. Ultimately, it was my best move.”

It is a valuable lesson. When we are forced to go against the flow by turning deep within and seeing situations for what they are, we may not always be liked but we invariably choose the correct course.

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