BlackBerry Woes A Familiar Story

July 2, 2011


Being on vacation this past week, I have not been thinking much about work.  However, I couldn’t help but follow the story of RIM‘s woes after announcing poor quarterly results and subsequent major sell-off of their shares.   The  Open letter to BlackBerry bosses on Boy Genius Report really caught my attention.  I am sure there are many Executives out there, including those at RIM, who are outraged that a high-level employee would write such a public letter rather than have the same discussion internally.  However, the letter is written much more professionally than the retelling from the press implies.  It also doesn’t reveal anything surprising.  The issues identified are a very familiar story of many companies, particularly in technology industries.

Disruptive Technology Graph

Disruptive Technology Graph (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I applauded the author at the first point.  It’s clear even to outside observers that RIM has lost focus on their end users.  A decade ago, Blackberry crushed Palm by creating a product that perfectly met the needs of hard-core business users.  It just worked and it worked consistently.  We could access and respond to our messages wherever we went and we didn’t have to learn a weird unreadable shorthand.  Other disruptive technology changed those needs and of course RIM has to expand its market.  Still, I agree with the letter’s author: the products and marketing are not speaking enough to how the products meet end-user needs.  Apple does that with every single product launch in recent history.  Check out a few videos of past product launches on YouTube.

Most of the points in the letter are directly related to management and leadership.  Good engineers do not necessarily make good managers or leaders.  Like with the engineering staff, good leaders need to be respected for the role they play in an organization and only those who are the best at what they do should be hired, promoted, and groomed.  Technical leaders need to focus on technology and innovation.  Business leaders need to focus on the business and the customer.  In the right balance, the two roles need to work together, not in opposition, to make great products and get them to market on time.  The best people will demand the best from each other.  With clear roles come clear lines of accountability along with the freedom to succeed… or fail.

Why do I care about all this?  RIM is a Canadian company and I like to see it succeed, even though I do not own any shares.   I have several friends who work there, some of whom were affected by the fall of Nortel.  They are intelligent and talented and enjoy working at RIM.  They have also seen these issues from their experiences at other tech companies and are motivated to help RIM work through the transition.  Finally, the letter describes a familiar story that almost every company experiences.  With its rapid growth, RIM is still suffering from the pain of transitioning from a small company  to a large company.  As with another telecommunications company I wrote about, RIM seems to have forgotten what made it great in the first place.  As a result, they can’t adapt it to the new context their competition has created.  I am very interested to see how RIM works through these growing pains and rises to a new level of achievement.

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About Liza Wood

After a dozen years leading video game development projects in a variety of roles, I decided to pursue a Master of Data Science at the University of British Columbia. Studying data science doesn’t mean I’m moving away from leading people. Growing data science teams need collaborative, pragmatic, Agile leadership to connect data to all areas of the business. I would like to share that point of view, along with my experiences, on this blog.

View all posts by Liza Wood

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