Originally published on August 14, 2013
So BlackBerry is up for sale. Clearly, this isn’t good for the Technology sector in Canada. It’s sad for me personally and a lot of my friends. Friends that I have made, during my 8 + years at BlackBerry. Formerly known as Research In Motion.
I started at RIM as a systems administrator, running and managing their mission critical systems. I then moved onto other roles such an Team Lead, Analyst e.t.c and I got an insider’s perspective into the operations, enterprise, corporate and business side of the venture.
Working for RIM for the first 6.5 years was an amazing experience. RIM was run like a well oiled machine. We had decent innovation, matched by a relentless focus on execution. The work environment was actually quite fun. The brand was entrenched and we were proud to see all of our work come to fruition.
But over a period of time, it clearly felt as if a culture of process was slowly overtaking over the enterprise and it was impacting everything. Specially it was impacting the cycles of innovation.
Increasingly, RIM was focused on a singular product, the BlackBerry, so it was called. That entails that RIM had a singular source of revenue generation. And if disrupted, then that would not bode well for RIM. Unfortunately, that isn’t how RIM, as a system viewed the situation. The focus had always been on pumping out BlackBerries and tagging a couple of bells and whistles on top. Thus RIM, with it’s single source of revenue generation was ripe for disruption.
There are lessons for other Tech companies, for them to learn from the failures at BlackBerry. I’m taking some time to document this, so others, particularly Canadian tech companies, do not end up making the same costly mistakes.
We urgently need a couple of rock-solid, resilient, billion dollar technology ventures in Canada. I am hoping that by documenting some of the lessons learned, I could play a very very tiny part in making that vision become a reality.
Disruptive Innovation – Don’t pay lip service to it
The term disruptive innovation or disruptive technologies was coined by this gentleman called Clayton M. Christensen. Clayton has done some remarkable work specific to the theory of disruptive innovation. If you are interested in all things innovation and how to keep your products and services relevant in this new age economy. Then this here is one of the books that you should definitely pickup and read. It’s called The Innovator’s Dilemma and it’s written by Clayton itself.
There is tons and tons of good and useful content in this book. I’ve gone through this book once and I sincerely feel as if I have to go back and read it a couple more times and take some more notes.
Disruption is actually the new norm. It’s all around you. The Internet itself is one of the greatest forces of disruption that we have ever witnessed. Internet has disrupted so many established verticals and continues doing so. Print, media, music, communications. The list goes on and on and on.
Now this phenomenon is picking up steam. As the Internet becomes more widely available and as it continues to grow organically. Millions of young people wake up each day and they literally dream of disrupting an established vertical, by virtue of launching a stellar product or service in the market. That’s the whole start-up scene. It’s global and it’s a truly amazing and stellar movement.
But disruption and disruptive innovation aren’t just relevant and related to Startups anymore. Businesses of all types and sizes have awoken to this reality. Entire industries are getting disrupted.
The gist of it is that you cannot rely on traditional mechanisms to create and sustain your revenue streams for an elongated amount of time. Thinking that nothing out there could disrupt your revenue streams. So that entails, that you harness the principles of disruptive innovation and there are a couple of different strategies that you can invoke here. Attacking other establishing verticals (reaching out of your core). Setting up barriers to entry and diversification of revenue streams. These are just a few of the simple strategies to employ in order to either become more disruptive or protect yourself from disruption.
The best mechanism is probably to harness the principles of disruptive innovation and use it as part and parcel of a complete product cycle. In a utopian situation, a decent sized tech company would refresh their entire product line every 6 months. Not 12 month or 2 years or 5 years. 6 months. Obviously, this is easier said than done. Apple does it and it does it really well. If you cannot refresh the entire product cycle, then focus on launching a new and exciting core feature or even product every 6 months. In an era of increasing innovation all over the place, this is one of the most effective strategies in order to retain and keep your customers engaged. Keep giving them something substantial, so that they keep coming back for more.
Don’t get caught up in your own successes. Whether you are a 2 million dollar venture or a 200 million dollar venture. Keep innovating. Stay hungry and compliment your strategies with a healthy dose of paranoia.
Grow your core. Once you’ve solidified your core, you must invoke strategies that will allow you to branch off in other areas. This ties in part and parcel with the diversification of revenue streams. You cannot and you must not rely on a single source of revenue generation. Sooner or later, that source of revenue generation will get disrupted in some, form, shape and fashion. So it is critical to spawn revenue streams that can grow and thus provide resiliency to the overall system, if and when the time arrives.
Some changes came about in the industry at some point. The business model changed. In fact it was turned upside down and then dismantled. To be replaced by a more nimbler, more agile mechanism of testing and validating your hypotheses.
The experimentation part has now turned in a cycle that is largely dependent upon the following cycles:
Basically, it goes something like this.
Instead of dedicating an enormous amount of people and resources towards a project or product. With no guarantee as to how it will do in the consumer or customer segment. What you actually end up doing is:
If this sounds interesting, then you probably want to go through the following and in the following order:
Tied in part and parcel with the willingness to experiment is the willingness to fail. There is no innovation without failure. There is no progress and no security without innovation.
The willingness to fail is the key ingredient in success - Vinod Khosla
I’d say that if you don’t fail enough times on a smaller scale, then you will eventually fail big on a much wider and perhaps irreversible scale. So it’s important to ‘minimize your risk’ and take calculated shots at experimenting in areas which could take off in the future.
Death by Process
There comes a time in every organizations life, where certain processes and procedures are required in order to facilitate and replicate the series of events, that we call work. We tend to describe that phenomenon as a process. A series of steps. A process is also a form of technology and there are enormous benefits towards putting an adequate amount of processes in place. Specifically if the business wants to eliminate duplication of efforts, increase efficiency e.t.c
But there also comes a time in every organizations life, when the processes that they have designed actually start working against their interests. This is the time, where an institution finds itself in a maze of processes. Now, this is a tricky situation. Because the effect could be masked. Meaning, that everything might seem very normal on the periphery. People are coming in to work, they are being productive and products are getting pumped out. The construct of a company is almost like an engine. An engine is a machine and it does not think. So it’s crucial to pull yourself out of this situation from time to time and see how things can be improved, augmented and optimized.
In that respect, the new-age economy of creativity and ideas entails that businesses provide their workforce with the necessary tools and environment for collaboration, encouraging ideation, debate e.t.c .
To make the distinction, you have the necessary processes dedicated for product management related cycles. But also:
Paint a vision
It’s crucial to paint a vision. To literally paint it. To visualize it. To weave it and to live it.
When you do that, you do not have to rely on hollow mission and vision statements.
Pick up any good book on the subject of innovation. The subject of harnessing dissent is imperative if you want to create and sustain a culture of innovation. But this does necessitate that you place ideas over hierarchies. Also, that you listen and implement most of the good ideas, no matter where they come from. Provided these ideas could serve a useful purpose or simply result in an enhanced user experience.
Complex Missions and Goals not required.It’s important to come up with a mantra that your workforce and even your audience can understand.
“We make great software”
“We make great hardware”
“We make great products”
“We make the best in-class platform for cloud computing and it will revolutionize the way people store their information”
Only hire A-players. Beware of the bozo explosion, that is the result of hiring B-players in bulk.
A-players, like everything else, come in different varieties though. Some are good at Strategy, others at execution and yet others at coming up with kick-ass ideas. Learn to make the distinction and learn how to find the merger between what A-players are good at and plugging them into an area of their interest that can also contribute towards the end-goal.
Trust, but verify
It’s good to delegate. But you need to come up with a mechanism, that will allow you to have a pulse over what is going on across every single facet of your organization. If you do not do that, then you will be potentially blind to a certain part of your organization. That can be quite problematic in scope-creep kind of situations. It can lead to finger-pointing during product failures and the inability to actually hold someone accountable. Thus compounding the problem, as it will most probably happen again.
Clear lines of Accountability
This seems to be a pervasive problem across the industry. As organizations grow, the structure of their rank and file grows more fragmented. Then, it takes that much longer to not only get traction on any given initiative. But also, it becomes that much more difficult to find out who is responsible for doing what.
It doesn’t matter how big you have become. You need to be structured like a start-up. Meaning, that there is always one person who is responsible for one major part of the business.
This reminds me of Steve Jobs and this particular part of the conversation he had with Walt Mossberg
And remember, zero committees!
Change blindness, it can prevent us from accepting reality and well…from quitting. This can be a catastrophic mistake during downturns. Specially the bigger a company gets, a public company. You need to know, when to hold em and when to fold em. You have an obligation to your workforce and to your shareholders. Knowing when to make the call, can make all the difference. Sometimes $ 200 Billions worth.
I believe these are some of the most crucial areas that any new or existing venture/ tech company should really focus upon. Too often a times, we find ourselves completely immersed in the technical product management aspect of the business. We end up ignoring a lot of other things, that contribute towards making good companies better and better companies into amazing institutions.
Business is more of an art.
There are a lot of things that you need to focus on. So it’s best to:
I hope, someone somewhere out there finds a little bit of value in this blog-post.
All of us really want to see more successful Canadian companies out there. In order to get there, we need to focus on some of the new and agile mechanisms of launching and sustaining companies. We also need better engagement and partnership with what’s going on down at the Valley and some of the other areas of activity (related to tech at the very least).