EDITOR: | September 26th, 2013 | 2 Comments

Research in Motion’s strife an evolutionary lesson from polar bears to entrepreneurs

| September 26, 2013 | 2 Comments

DarwinThere seems to be hasty consensus that Darwinism is at the center of the demise of RIM: competition among smartphone makers has out-texted, out-pixelled and out-WIFIed RIM. Therefore RIM is looking to focus on its business clients. However, consensus does not mean truth. In this case it means there is a common misconception.

It’s naïve to think that RIM has been pushed to the edge of the cliff by Darwinist competition: any of us uses less than 95% of the functionalities of our smartphone be it an Android, an iPhone or a Blackberry. Apps, accessories and glitter alone cannot explain why the Blackberry maker is troubled.  What is the good in developing a slicker smartphone?

RIM’s woes have everything to do with how evolutionary forces conspire cruelly against specialized organisms. The answer to the problem lies in evolutionary theory that predates Charles Darwin’s On the origin of species in 1859.

Charles Darwin claimed that species evolve because of competition between themselves. But Darwin discounted the effect of environmental changes. Nature is driven by change: fire, warming, cooling, flooding, events that decide who will thrives and who is relegated to the dusty fossil collection of museums.

Alfred Russel Wallace claimed that species evolve because of their environmental constraints in his 1853 paper titled “On the monkeys in the Amazon”.  There is a world of difference in our understanding between Wallace’s monkeys and Darwin’s finches that explains why species survive — why RIM is struggling.

Take the polar bear, a fearsome carnivore that sniffs out an unsuspecting seal from 15 miles away. Surveys show that polar bear population is threatened as a direct relation with the retreat of the polar ice. The polar bear’s problem?  It has evolved to thrive in a very specialized habitat range: it needs polar ice.

The same thing happened to the Dodo bird an extinct flightless bird that was endemic to the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. When scurvied Dutch sailors stumbled on the beaches of Mauritius in 1598 they enjoyed the pigeon-like meat of this giant flightless bird so well that the last recorded sighting of the dodo in 1662. The dodo was a habitat specialist that had evolved without significant predators: it had no needs of wings to evade predators and was fearless.

The process of innovation takes an inordinately specialized skillset that falls between alchemy and artistry. Leading innovators take concepts from different fields of knowledge, and through their power of imagination and creativity, they invent something that no one has seen before. Artists follow a similar process. It is axiomatic that the first company to come up with the smart phone in 1999 has innovation embedded so deep in its operating system that it would infuse every cultural fabric of the organization, without people even knowing it. Innovators are as much specialists at the polar bear and the dodo bird: they are absolute experts at what they do.

When earlier this year RIM wrote-off a billion dollars of new products that can’t be sold, it was telling us that it focused on innovation and not on the shifting market environment. It was telling us that it needs to morph into a different critter.

Wallace’s theory tells us that to evolve, there is a need to adapt to changing environments. This becomes very hard for highly specialized species like the polar bear and the dodo that have painted themselves into an evolutionary corner.

To evolve RIM needs to transform itself into an ecological generalist: develop the ability to function in a shifting environment through vertical integration or joining forces with market generalists. The notion that RIM will focus only on its business clients might be similar to the polar bear deciding to only live on pink ice floes:  hyper-specialization.  From the perspective of evolutionary theory it is suicide.

Dr. Luc Duchesne


Dr. Luc C. Duchesne is a Speaker and Author with a PhD in Biochemistry. With three decades of scientific and business experience, he has published ... <Read more about Dr. Luc Duchesne>

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  • Sue Glover

    Luc this article and analysis is absolutely riveting. I could not agree with you more and am thrilled to see this unique analysis of RIM. As a Canadian I have been both proud of and a user of the BB. I have, with trepidation, watched their progression and think your analysis is bang on. I want them to succeed for a myriad of reasons and hope to see a shift in focus that will enable them to overcome these challenges. Thanks for this article, so well written, a true pleasure to read!

    September 26, 2013 - 1:49 PM

  • hackenzac

    This is an interesting essay however I the Darwin analogy is too simple. While changes in the environment have certainly led to RIMM’s current state, unlike the polar bear, competition is also a major factor. It’s like killer whales showing up to eat all of the seals in addition to the sea ice retreating. RIMM is on the diminishing ice of B2B with orcas named Apple and Google eating all the blubber. There’s the change in environment AND the competition, a double whammy.

    September 26, 2013 - 2:34 PM

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