BlackBerry Jam

They sit there in the room, their eyes fixed on the head of the table. There stands a man, quite probably the team’s manager. He is speaking, presenting some gem of long-since-forgotten lore. Those watching him seem rapt, focused, intent upon his brilliance. But look again. Notice the strain around their eyes, the sweat upon their brows. See the twitching of the hands, as though each man and woman in that room could keep their hands upon the table only with great effort. Watch longer; see the hands slipping off the table, sliding towards pockets and purses. See realization cross the faces, observe the hands forced jerkily back towards the table, as if their owners were fighting against some horrid, hypnotic compulsion. Over and over again, the hand is pushed back.

But attention is finite, will power limited. Eventually, a hand reaches a pocket. It slips out seconds later, an object tightly clutched in its grip. A flicker of bliss passes across a man’s face as he glances furtively down at the object in his hand: a BlackBerry.

So it was in 2005, in the days when the Blackberries ruled the world. Coming out of the distant north, from a place, or so it is said, far out on the rim, Blackberries quickly came to dominate the corporate world. Everyone had to have one. At the very thought that the Blackbery network might go down, panic would spread across the land. A few months later, in 2006, Webster’s Dictionary proudly proclaimed the new word of the year : “Crackberry.” BlackBerry seemed unstoppable, its spread inexorable. And then, as rapidly as it had grown, BlackBerry shrank, faded, vaninshed away. Of that invincible empire, but a single outpost remains, fighting to not vanish away and be forgotten. What force, what power broke the might of BlackBerry?


That is correct: what destroyed BlackBerry was its own success. Confident in their power, they forgot that when you build the perfect mousetrap someone will come along with a cat. Unlike a mousetrap, the cat does not need to be reset, it doesn’t need the mouse to come to it, it is fun to play with, and it keeps your feet warm at night. Also, the purr is soothing. While BlackBerry’s co-CEOs were busily dismissing the iPhone as, “a toy,” Apple and Google were busily striking deep into the heart of their empire. iPhones and Android phones are not just business devices. They are entertainment devices and are fun to use. BlackBerry, or to be more accurate, Research In Motion, stood still while those around them kept moving.

One of the challenges in innovation is that what a company becomes good at, it naturally wants to keep doing. Innovation becomes an exercise in perfecting the existing product and building up impenetrable barriers to competitors. The catch, however, is that the wall that keeps others out also keeps you in. Research In Motion kept making better and better “business” phones. They let their product define them until they could no longer change as the world around them moved on. In 2007, the first iPhone arose to challenge the BlackBerry. Much to RIM’s surprise, this upstart “toy” proved surprisingly popular. RIM’s attempt to respond with a touchscreen phone of its own was a dismal failure, and their attempts at an Appstore and at adding an MP3 player to their phones were equally unsuccessful. From owning some 70% of the market in 2006, the BlackBerry is now less than 2%. That was the price of their success.

Real innovation is a messy business. It requires trying a great many different things and being wrong most of the time. Indeed, successful innovators fail far more often than they succeed. When a company does succeed, though, it naturally wants to protect and extend that success: they start thinking about how much more successful they would be if only all those messy, and costly, mistakes could be eliminated. They start looking for reasons why their product is invincible, instead of experimenting with things that might kill it. Your cash cow is sacred only to you; to everyone else, it’s just hamburger waiting to happen. Guided by their successes, Research In Motion focused ever more tightly in making better and better Blackberries. That single-minded obsession caused them to develop corporate tunnel vision: all they could see in the future was their own inevitable triumph. In that, they joined with other great companies such as Polaroid and Kodak, who missed the digital photography boat, IBM which was dethroned by the PCs it invented, Digital Equipment, whose CEO declared the PC, “a toy,” Barnes & Noble, which was successfully Amazoned, and a host of others.

So how does a company remain innovative?

Recognize that the more tightly you focus, the less you see. Sometimes it pays to take your eyes off the ball and look at the big picture. What else is going on? Pay particular attention to those competitors you see as jokes. What are they offering your current customers and, even more to the point, what are they offering your potential customers? Apple and Google didn’t take on BlackBerry in its corporate strongholds; rather, they vacuumed up all the rest of the oxygen and the corporate strongholds followed.

Remember that mistakes are part of the game. You can learn from them or hide from them: it’s your choice whether you are receiving feedback or experiencing failure.

Put your focus on process and strategy, not just on results. When you think strategically, you can start to anticipate the moves others might make. Unlike chess, the rules don’t have to stay the same. If you’re making the rules, someone else will break them. Why wait for them to do it and seize the initiative? And if someone else is defining the rules, you have nothing to lose by breaking as many of them as you can. Who says a business phone can’t play music, videos, and games? Research In Motion, that’s who.

Those meetings are still going on. Hands are still slipping into pockets. Men and women are still furtively glancing down at the objects in their hands. Today, those objects are Droids and iPhones. Tomorrow?


Steve’s new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers, is now available. The initial run sold out in two days at; order your copy now.

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