If you have ever experienced whitewater rapids, you know the exhilarating sensation of making hairpin turns to avoid rocks; changing direction every few seconds; and trusting your team, your very wet, adrenaline-pumped team, as you cut through rushing currents. Few have navigated the treacherous Covid-19 rapids as deftly as Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom, the now ubiquitous video conferencing technology company.
Zoom was founded in 2011 when the video conferencing market was already in full swing. That same year, Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5 billion. Four years earlier, Cisco, the Internet networking giant, bought WebEx, another leading videoconferencing company, for $3.2 billion. Yet when the world went into quarantine, and businesses and schools relocated to living rooms, everyone learned to Zoom.
Though Yuan and his team had trained on responding to natural disasters in the run-up to going public in 2019, they never imagined they would face the size of the surge in demand. But they were prepared: Zoom’s data centers were set up to handle traffic surges of 10 to 100 times normal, Yuan says.
Zoom also did not miss a beat when, overnight, everybody realized they needed a tool like Zoom to connect their people. In a typical day early in the pandemic, 343,000 people globally downloaded the Zoom app, compared with 90,000 people worldwide just two months earlier, according to mobile intelligence firm Apptopia. That’s almost four times as many downloads in a single day. With engineering teams across the globe, Zoom was able to remotely monitor its systems around the clock.
The job of business leaders today can resemble navigating in unpredictable, turbulent, crowded, and even dangerous waters. Whitewater is named for the bubbly, unstable, aerated, frothy water that appears white. As John Seely Brown (JSB), former co-chair of Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, has reminded us, “We are living in a whitewater world. It’s a world that is rapidly moving in often surprising and unforeseen ways.”
Like a whitewater kayaker, business leaders must learn to skillfully read the currents and disturbances of the context around them, “interpreting the surface flows, ripples, and rapids for what they reveal about what lies beneath the surface.”
Navigating the rapids also involves the occasional crash into rocks or capsizing. Yuan, the entrepreneur, experienced such challenges early in the quarantine, including security and privacy breaches. He responded by acknowledging the problems and working harder to address them. He also learned more about his customer base, always a prime focus for Yuan.
The typical Zoom client had been a company’s chief information officer who had been introduced to the product’s functionality, including privacy features, and leveraged them. With the pandemic came many first-time users who thought nothing of posting on social media a gallery view from a Zoom call, which they did not realize included their meeting room and password. Suddenly, complaints of “Zoom bombing” arose, with strangers crashing video conferencing calls.
Yuan and his team quickly realized that the Covid-19 crisis brought a different user base to his product, one that did not know about Zoom’s security features. As a result, Zoom shifted to focus on “how to make it easier for first-time users,” Yuan explains. “We changed our practice.”
Companies poised to thrive in today’s whitewater world, and the future world of work, are organized to facilitate quickly creating new products, services, and experiences. They are sensing and building, responding and growing, as they focus on continual improvement. They work in highly integrated teams, with a dedicated customer focus, and the ability to deliver in sprints. Agile by design, the next MVP (minimum viable product) is their touchstone.
The rapid rise of Zoom during the first half of 2020 is likely to be a case taught in business schools. And well it should. While Zoom will attract its fans and critics, it is hard to argue that there is not something essential to learn from this evolving story.
In uncertain and volatile markets, nimble, entrepreneurial companies can take on corporate giants and reorder industries. This is the growth opportunity of leading in the whitewater world through maintaining an almost fanatical focus on usability and customer experience (“it’s so easy to use”), building for scalability, investing in resilience, and managing a team focused on continual improvement and unseen problems.
The Zoom team’s ability to navigate the whitewater environment illustrates the types of challenges in which humans excel, and AI, so far, does not.
Adapted from Work Disrupted: Opportunity, Resilience, and Growth in the Accelerated Future of Work by Jeff Schwartz. © 2021, Wiley.