Are The Blackberry Product Managers Playing Below The RIM?

by drjim on October 31, 2011

Sure It's Pretty, But Is It Better Than An iPhone?

Sure It’s Pretty, But Is It Better Than An iPhone?

Come with me while we travel back in time, not far, just 5 years or so. Now that we’re here, take a look around. What do you see? I bet you see just about all of those corporate folks using their Blackberries to make calls and check email. Poof! Now we’re back in current times. Something has gone horribly wrong at the Blackberry parent company, RIM, and is it the fault of RIM’s product managers?

Nothing Is Every Constant But Change

One of the problems that all product managers face is that if they own a market there is no place to go but down. Research In Motion (RIM) certainly owned the market for smartphones before the term had even been invented.

RIM had a great relationship with CIOs and enterprise IT staff. Everyone was buying Blackberry servers and installing them at their company. The RIM product managers would meet with corporate IT teams and based on what their needs were, the product roadmap for the Blackberry phones would be laid out.

All good things have to come to an end. This happened in the world of Blackberry about two years ago. That’s when sales of Blackberry phones to consumers overtook sales to corporate users. This was caused by two events: corporate users have more options so they are buying a lot of non-Blackberry phones these days and more consumers are upgrading to smart phones and since they’ve seen all of the business users with their Blackberries, it seemed like a natural next step.

This change in their customer base wasn’t part of the RIM product manager job description. It has caught the RIM product managers by surprise: consumers behave very differently from business users. What’s even worse, consumers don’t have any central IT department that RIM product managers can meet with to find out what should be on their product’s roadmap.

Why Things Went Wrong At RIM

So just how did the wheels fall off of the wagon over at RIM? It basically has a lot to do with product speed. For you see, the world of corporate users moves much more slowly than the world of consumers who have more options does.

According to Phred Dvorak before they knew what was happening the RIM product managers found themselves behind schedule: they had product delays and a bunch of new products ended up being scheduled to hit the market at the same time.

This isn’t all the fault of the RIM product managers. RIM had all sorts of internal issues going on. They were internally divided into separate consumer and enterprise divisions with separate account managers and business development managers. Oh, oh. These two groups did not see the world the same way and lots of disagreements ensued.

The guys who started RIM are very bright. CEO Mike Lazaridis is an engineer and it turns out (hold on, you know where this is going) he is still intimately involved in all of the technical and strategic decisions that are made about RIM products. Ouch – so much for delegation!

What RIM’s Product Managers Need To Do To Save The Day

So is RIM a sinking ship that the product managers should be preparing to flee? No way, RIM has great market share and, if they take the right actions, this is just a bump in the road. There are three things that the RIM product managers need to do in order to get their products back on track.

The first is to accelerate their product development and release schedule. Hopefully this skill is on everyone’s product manager resume. The consumer world moves fast and only the fast will survive. This may mean that there will need to be separate consumer and enterprise product lines. Or, even better, accelerate the enterprise product line also and RIM can impress their corporate customers.

Secondly, the RIM product managers need to change their thinking about what makes their product desirable. Enterprise buyers were members of the IT team and the technical characteristics of the RIM products was what they were looking for. Consumers care about completely different things.

The RIM product managers need to worry less about the security of their product’s transmissions and more about making sure that users have access to and can play “Angry Birds” on their Blackberries. This is a big change and it’s not going to come easy.

Finally, I hate to say it, but the RIM engineers need to leave the planning table. Yes, the engineers still have an important role to play, but it is no longer one of strategic management or deciding what goes on the product roadmap.

What All Of This Means For You

What’s going on over at RIM is not all that unusual – I’ve seen this happen a hundred times. The market for their product has changed on them and they weren’t paying attention and now they are trying to figure out what they need to do in order to adjust to the new world that they find themselves in.

That new world moves a lot faster than the enterprise-led world that RIM is used to. That means that RIM’s product managers are going to have to adjust what goes onto their product roadmaps (more consumer focused features and fewer technical ones) and they are going to have to step up and wrest control of the product away from the engineers.

The good news is that this is not a hopeless situation. The bad news is that there is not much time in which to turn things around. The markets in which RIM competes move very quickly so they are going to have to implement these changes very quickly or risk having their customers hang up on them.

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What do you think the first change that RIM’s product managers should make would be?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Hey product manager, so you’d like to find a way to make your product appeal to more customers? Hmm, well let’s think about this for a moment – is there anything in your product manager job description that we can use to solve this problem? Maybe there is. Although many of us work for companies that are national or even international in scope, the hard, cold reality of marketing your product is that all customers are local to somewhere. If you want to capture their attention, then perhaps you need to find a way to successfully do local advertising…

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