Last week BlackBerry makers Research In Motion imploded. In a decisive move the old guard was swept from senior management positions. Including, crucially, the oldest guard of all: cofounder Jim Balsillie. This week the new RIM’s revealed it’s tweaking its BlackBerry Enterprise Servers–the core engines that power much of the BlackBerry’s fast mail handling, and its secure messaging–to support iOS. That’s a concession it’s lost the lion’s share of the smartphone market to Apple. It’s also a sign that a lot of mistakes have happened, and RIM is pushing the reset button.
But RIM’s story is an amazing one–it single-handedly disrupted the very staid business of corporate communications. And it revolutionized corporate habits the world over: With a BlackBerry in your pocket you could for the first time safely confer with your office to get the very latest secret figures even as you walked to that big merger meeting. Your calendar could be adjusted by your team back in the office to alert you to a change of venue, even while you were en route. And you could tinker with the 5-year business model’s figures as you sat in the bath, or in bed at 5 a.m. (If you were so inclined. Reclined?)
And now, BlackBerrys–while still selling–are far from the cutting edge. If you were being cruel you’d say they’re more the blunt plastic scissors you give to kids. We now know it’s because RIM has made a sequence of mistakes. And where there are successes and mistakes, there are lessons for us all:
1. If you’ve got a great, innovative, disruptive, surprising new product commit to it 100%. This means you have to tout it as revolutionary, scale your production quickly and strengthen your own infrastructure to support the influx of demand. Pursue your customer base aggressively. Break rules. Make concessions, but only where they result in your product penetrating further into new markets or deeper into existing ones largely under your own terms. Iterate your offerings so clients keep wanting the next performance tweak. Be confident, be brash, be prepared to shatter long-held illusions.
2. If your product is a storming success, don’t get complacent. It’s dangerous to ever think you’ve “cracked it” and beaten your competition, or that you’ve assumed so much market dominance a left-field player can’t surprise you. This means you have to continually innovate–as well as cleverly iterating–lest you lose sight of the cutting edge. Listen to your customers. Watch your peers. Research into imaginative space far outside your current offerings…the dreamy, impossible tech will one day be real, and it had better be you who makes it if you want to keep the cash rolling in. If a peer outmaneuvers you, learn about their tech–don’t pooh-pooh it–embrace it, spot the errors or concessions the makers made, and better them with something that is even more revolutionary. Never imagine a clickwheel will outperform a multi-touchscreen.
3. Listen to your people when they tell you your tech needs to be pushed forward. This is related to the above–and at times is more important even than the urge to make money. Your researchers know how the tech can be innovated, and are aware of continual new developments in materials, engineering and electronics (or their equivalent ancillary businesses for your company) that are outside of your purview, but which will be core to your next-next-gen products. Their advice should be kept in mind, lest soon you won’t make money at all. Also you must encourage innovation, challenge, adventures, excitement, and really wild things among all your staff–if everyone’s too afraid to speak up and challenge you then nothing changes. Especially if those challenges, like “Hey, you know there’s a better way to do this than with a thumb clickwheel now?” are really, really important.
4. Dump awkward management. The writer Arthur C. Clarke once joked in a novel about the difficulties of the painless removal of distinguished elderly scientists, but the same holds true for powerful, bullish, over-confident CEOs…the problem just becomes trickier if they also happen to be founders and original innovators (but, frankly, if they’ve had no new ideas since that first one then maybe you have to face up to the notion it was a one-off). On the other hand, make sure you’re ditching them for the right reason: John Sculley famously fell out with a young Steve Jobs and eventually machinated to ditch him from his own firm, perhaps because Jobs didn’t match with Sculley’s (and Apple’s board’s) much more traditional, corporate viewpoints. Yet it was that very asymmetry that was responsible for Apple’s product differentiators.
5. One product and one idea is never, ever, enough. So surround yourself with people who’ll suggest to you the BlackBerry Pie tablet PC, the StrawBerry music player, the SnozBerry electric dog polisher (okay maybe not that, but you get the point)… people who are just as passionate about their product or business ideas as you are about your own. Spot the genius moves in the mix, co-opt them into your own strategy, sell them to the public. Reward the innovators appropriately, even if they’re cleverer than you. Make them millionaires with stock. Just keep moving forward.