Steve Jobs' Lesson for RIM: Power of Perceptions, Turnaround 101


Recently, RIM’s CEO Thorsten Heins basically said he thought RIM was in pretty good shape and would come roaring back next year. It reminds me a lot of how Steve Jobs turned Apple around and of what made Jobs so very different from Thorsten. You see, Jobs was a master of perceptions. He spent a good deal of his early life hiking across India and learning from a variety of religious leaders there. One of the things he appeared to have come back with was the correct opinion that reality is tied tightly to perception and that perception is vastly easier to change. Successful religions aren't based on reality, they're based on faith and religious faith is virtually 100 percent perception.

In a way, what Jobs did for Apple in the 1990s and early 2000s is exactly what could work for RIM, but Thorsten isn’t yet on that path. Let me explain because this isn’t just about turning a company around, it is about managing perceptions.

The Steve Jobs Turnaround

This has been heavily cited in several of the books on Steve Jobs, most notably "iCon: Steve Jobs, the Greatest Second Act in the History of Business." Jobs didn’t want this book published and when it was, all of the Wiley & Sons books on Apple were banned from Apple’s stores in retribution. While the book praises Jobs' efforts, it also showcases his methods and much of what is showcased is how Jobs manipulated perceptions and outright lied in order to get people to buy products he didn’t believe in.

Jobs took over a company on the ropes, and it was on the ropes because it had been selling products that didn’t compete for years. Jobs had been outspoken on how crappy the products were before taking Apple back and when he took over suddenly the products were amazing. The thing is, it took years to fix the products, but he knew he wouldn’t get those years if he continued to tell folks that the products were crap once he was CEO, so he changed his rhetoric and the faithful believed.

From then on he led with the message and followed with the products. The iPod sold amazingly well initially, given it only worked on Macs. What wasn’t widely published was that it had one of the highest return rates of any Apple product ever because it only worked on Macs. By the second holiday season it worked on Windows and the perception that it was a massive success before helped drive it to eventually become the massive industry-dominating product that was at the core of Apple’s turnaround.

When Jobs first presented the iPhone, it not only didn’t work — many in Apple thought it couldn’t work — it simply was too far ahead of the market. But by following June, it worked well enough for Jobs to present it as magical and even though it was a very slow 2.5G phone in a 3G world and basically an iPod with phone features tacked on, it sold out. Succeeding generations corrected the problems and up until recently (it has been falling sharply in reviews of late), it has dominated its segment.

RIM Good Company Surrounded by Bad Perceptions

Like Apple, currently the perceptions surrounding RIM have it going out of business and unable to sell itself or its assets to buyers at fire-sale prices. These are all perceptions based largely on unproven rumors that may have even been started by competitors. To change these perceptions, RIM has to craft and then artfully tell a credible story of success. For Apple, Jobs was the person who drove those initial changes personally because he was believed and trusted by the Apple faithful.

RIM has to find a spokesman that will be equally credible with IT buyers and RIM users who form the basis of RIM’s remaining faithful users and then give him, or her, a story that will resonate with these folks on not only RIM’s future but its present. With all of the focus on RIM’s next platform, that is going to be a bit more difficult, but it can at least create a story that may prevent more customers from jumping ship to Apple and Android in the meantime because every firm that jumps will likely be removed from RIM’s revenue base for a period of at least two years or the cycle time for a smartphone.

Fortunately, RIM builds a pretty decent product, it just isn’t an iPhone anymore than a Mac was a Windows computer in the 1990s. But both platforms have three problems/competitive weaknesses against RIM. They aren’t easily managed, they are relatively unsecure and they are more optimized for entertainment than for communications. The standard BlackBerry line plays well against these weaknesses and if RIM can get its remaining users (who are likely the most loyal or unwilling to change in the group) it could slow market erosion enough to bring its next-generation device to market. But if it doesn't quickly stop the bleeding, there may not be enough market left when its new platform comes out next year.

Wrapping Up: Perception Is 100 Percent of Reality

What engineers in particular just don’t seem to understand is the fungible nature of perceptions and that once set, they are very hard to change. You can see this play out in politics where, regardless of the evidence, people will continue to believe things both positive and negative that are untrue about a politician (the Obama birthers are the most common recent example). If you give folks loyal to you something remotely credible to believe in, they will believe, and that may give you the time to build a future worth that belief, but, if you don’t have time, you can’t build that future.

That is the position RIM is currently in. It doesn’t appear to have the time to bring to market the next platform that could, in fact, be as wonderful as anything Apple’s done. But, if it doesn't stop the bleeding and buy that time, it is likely done and that amazing future will be, much like it was with Palm and HP, the path not traveled.