“In June 2007, the first iPhone hits the stores. Far from recognizing the potential threat to BlackBerry’s dominance, Lazaridis and Balsillie publicly belittle Apple’s device, criticizing its short battery life and weaker security.” The Rise And Fall of BlackBerry: An Oral History, Bloomberg Businessweek, Dec 9, 2013.
There it was up on the screen. The list of competitors for our products. One, over in the corner of the slide, was called the iPhone.
After senior management finished discussing our strategy, but never mentioning the iPhone, someone asked “What about the iPhone?” Their answer? Oh, that is just a niche product. Not really something we need to worry about.
A few years earlier I had started to work at this company and we had produced our first trio of phones. The phone I liked was the one with the bigger screen and it could connect to other devices using Infrared (IrDA) and Bluetooth. None of our other phones had these capabilities.
I asked why we weren’t putting more effort into further developing and selling this type of phone? The answer was, yeah — you middle aged engineering types like this kind of phone. We don’t sell to you. We sell to a younger audience. They want cool looking flip phones, not boring flat shaped phones that are full of gadgets. We know what sells.
There is a story of how GE had a philosophy that if they were not first or second in a market with their product or service, then it was not a product or service they were going to pursue. At a military symposium they were asked by a military officer how much opportunities they were letting slip by because their desire to be only number one or two. As the story goes, this got GE to rethink their whole philosophy.
What struck me was, being an ex-military officer, why would we have any special insight that would kick off a transformation in a very large and successful commercial business? My conclusion was — we didn’t, except we were outsiders and big customers, and anyone in the inside of GE suggesting a need to change a strategy was probably being told to get in line or get out.
It is always hard to see a change early enough to adjust to it in time. But the pattern I’ve seen is the challenge is noticed by a few in the company but the rest of the company is focused on business as usual. Bringing up a new opportunity is met by “yeah, yeah, now let’s get back to what is really important.”
In my experience, some of the best innovations came from folks not working on the current company main product or service line. Some of the best ideas I’ve seen implemented came from someone playing around with some obscure capability of a system. If someone says “hey, how are we going to handle X?” — we need to be more willing to say “Ok, since you guys brought it up, go work on that and tell us what we should be doing — if anything.”
For other approaches see Maybe We Should Ignore Our Boss
We can’t work on everything we think of, but we should always be busy messing around with ideas and notions that are not directly supporting our currently successful products and services. When we find ourselves suppressing or discouraging other avenues of thought, we need to clearly distinguish between the desire to keep folks focused and the need to adapt to a changing world, before it puts us out of business.
What interesting ideas or challenges do you see that should probably have projects dedicated to them?