Sunday, September 13, 2015

Review: Losing the Signal

(cross-posted on LinkedIn)
"When a business declines it begins gradually, almost imperceptibly, until so many failures pile up that the unraveling arrives with unnerving speed."   - Losing the Signal
If you've regularly read my reviews, you'll know I enjoy a good biography/genesis story - how something got its start (Hilton, Disney, Starbucks, Amazon, Google) but often my lament is that the book ends before the story does - the companies continue to grow, evolve and innovate and that as I close the book, I'm already aware of enough new things they've done worthy of additional chapters or books.

This was one case where I didn't feel like that.  While Research in Motion, nay, BlackBerry, still exists as a company, I felt that this book served as a post-mortem to what went wrong.  The patient isn't dead, but all hope has been lost. (It's only a matter of time before they're sold for their patents to a company that would have paid much more for them just a few years ago.)

I'd wanted to read this book for some time, but had never gotten to it.  Before a recent business trip I downloaded it to my Kindle and spent a lot of the flights wrapped up in what serves to be a good look at what can go wrong. So horribly, horribly wrong.

In 2000, I had a BlackBerry for work.  It was an oversized pager with a small screen, probably 8 lines.  At 6 am when it woke up, it would start chirping with new emails from the East Coast and when it went to sleep at 11 pm, I'd often wake it up to send one more email.  I could send messages to a phone number and a robotic voice would read the message to the person.  You could call a 1-800 number and someone would take your message and transcribe and it would arrive as an email on my BlackBerry.

I remember one trip up the 5 in Central California where there was something going on at work.  Every time we'd hit a pocket of coverage, it would chirp, my wife would read it to me and then type a reply for me and quickly send before we drove back out of coverage.

I loved my BlackBerry. I was an addict. I left the company and my BlackBerry behind, but continued to hold a soft spot in my heart for them.

At that point, RIM was so far ahead of everyone else, it was their industry to lose.  And that they did. Spectacularly.  And it's tragic.  And also a warning.

This book followed the two founders from their school days, the company's early days, the explosive growth, the misteps, the arrogance, the failure to listen to the marketplace, their customers, their partners. Before too long, it was too entrenched, there was too much to protect and they were willing to break rules and use their weight to protect and advance their cause at the expense of others.  Sadly, the world moved on and it was really at their own expense.

This book is a compelling tale for any organization that forgets its way and looks inward, becomes protective, entrenched and unwilling or able to pivot, to listen to the marketplace or to kill sacred cows.  It's sad, but what's sadder will be lessons that go unlearned by those who should read this but don't.

I would definitely pair this book with Chip Heath and Dan Heath's great book Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard.

Losing the Signal: The Untold Story
Behind the Extraordinary Rise
and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry

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