Create Sustainable Advantage with Design Thinking

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Research In Motion (RIM) makers of the ubiquitous BlackBerry is a company with a market value of as much as $84 billion on the design, manufacture, and marketing of wireless communications devices. It is headed by one of the most committed and remarkable design thinkers—Mike Lazaridis, RIM’s founder, president, co-CEO, and design visionary. Lazaridis is responsible for product strategy, R&D, product development, and manufacturing. His co-CEO, Jim Balsillie, leads the business side of RIM, including corporate strategy, sales, and finance. It’s a uniquely successful partnership between two starkly different men. Balsillie is a sleek bundle of contained energy, his quick mind—and mouth—racing from one idea to the next. Next to the angular, athletic Balsillie, Lazaridis cuts a softer, heavier figure, with a thick mane of prematurely grey hair. He is quietly thoughtful until it comes time to talk about his products. Then, the enthusiasm virtually bubbles out of him. When he shares new products with his board of directors (of which I’m one), he can only be described as wildly excited, genuinely thrilled to share his innovations and to see the reactions. Clearly, designing BlackBerrys makes him happy.

Born in Turkey to Greek parents, Lazaridis was five years old and already fascinated by technology when he immigrated with his family to Canada in 1966. By 1984, Lazaridis was an electrical engineering student at the University of Waterloo, just a few credits shy of graduating. But his real passion was designing gadgets. He convinced his parents to lend him seed money to start a technology company and finally dropped out of the university when the fledgling start-up secured a contract with General Motors.

Lazaridis started out making circuit boards and before long was generating more than $1 million in annual sales. One of his customers was Balsillie, who eventually left his job to help Lazaridis grow RIM into something even bigger. Lazaridis turned his attention to mobile communication devices. He’d learned about digital signal processing at the university, and combined with the expertise in surface-mount technology he’d gained from his circuit-board work, Lazaridis was convinced he could change the wireless communication marketplace, then entirely dominated by analog technology.

He knew it was a ridiculously lofty goal. All the phone companies were massively invested in analog, while digital was in its infancy. Looking back, he says, “Digital had nothing going for it. It was complicated, it was expensive, it was bulky. Anyone who didn’t understand the future, and couldn’t see where digital signal processing was going to take us, thought this was ridiculous.” His prototype digital devices, he says, could be summed up quickly and derisively: “Three boards, packed with parts, battery lasts maybe fifteen minutes. What the hell is this crap?” 1

Yet Lazaridis was convinced digital processing was the future, and that RIM could take the lead if it thought about innovation in a way that none of its peers did. It’s a philosophy that he maintains to this day. Product design, he says, “has to push the envelope to the point where it seems like you’re making a mistake.” He argues that you have to strive to make a leap far beyond what is possible at the moment. “It has to be audacious from a technical point of view,” he says. “When a little company in Canada decides to build a cellular radio and to build it better than the people who birthed cellular radio—notably Motorola and Ericsson at the time—that’s a big, audacious goal.”

All the more reason to pursue it, figured Lazaridis and Balsillie. RIM entered the product market with an interactive two-way pager, but Lazaridis already believed that the growth of e-mail would make paging obsolete. He wanted to combine the flexibility of the wireless network with the relatively data-rich communication of e-mail, taking wireless communication beyond the character limits of text messaging. Making a logical leap to what might be, he hit on the idea of a personal digital assistant that would handle e-mail on the go. RIM’s signature product, the BlackBerry, was born.

From its inception in 1984 to the launch of the BlackBerry in February 1999, RIM grew relatively slowly. Since the BlackBerry launch, RIM has grown explosively from zero subscribers and $50 million in revenue from its legacy pager products to more than 25 million customers and $11 billion in revenue by February 2009. 2 And the BlackBerry has become an indispensable aid to millions of people. Not for nothing is it nicknamed the CrackBerry.

RIM took its first big mystery—how to provide wireless e-mail to corporate users—and drove it to a heuristic—the first primitive BlackBerry. RIM then drove that heuristic to an algorithm, serving corporate customers around the world through its carrier partners and its own proprietary network. It achieved massive scale and efficiency as it drove through the knowledge funnel. But it didn’t stop there.

Lazaridis, who shifted from circuit boards to pagers to Black-Berrys, continually reexamined the original mystery and sought out new mysteries as well. “In a business,” he says, “no matter how good the process is, no matter how much you’ve got it down pat, no matter how much money you’re making, how efficient, you have to always go back and say ‘Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re seeing the market? Are we dealing with incomplete information?’ Because that’s what’s going to get you: it’s not necessarily that some young whippersnapper’s going to come up with some better idea than you. They’re going to start from a different premise and they’re going to come to a different conclusion that makes you irrelevant.” By watching his competitors, Lazaridis had learned the danger of resting comfortably on existing heuristics and algorithms. “Motorola lost because it didn’t embrace the future,” he says. “It was too damn good at what it was doing.” Seduced by reliability, Motorola had stopped thinking like a designer.

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