RIM is King Lear: Self-Blinded and Waiting for Death

Last Updated Jul 1, 2011 1:38 PM EDT

Watching Research in Motion (RIMM) has become the corporate equivalent of attending a Eugene O'Neill production: drama meets dysfunctional family for classic tragic results. And now the company has found its own inner playwright in the form of a senior RIM executive who wrote an open letter to senior management.

Not that what the nameless exec, whose identity Boy Genius Report (BGR) says it verified, mentioned anything all that shocking. The letter is filled with logical explanations for RIM's all-too-obvious performance problems. The surprise is that the management problems -- because they're all management problems -- are so extreme that the company is now under siege from within and without.

Inside scoop
The first four sentences of the open letter offer a cogent and unhappy summary of RIM through the eyes of one employee (emphasis in the original):
I have lost confidence.
While I hide it at work, my passion has been sapped. I know I am not alone -- the sentiment is widespread and it includes people within your own teams.

Mike and Jim, please take the time to really absorb and digest the content of this letter because it reflects the feeling across a huge percentage of your employee base. You have many smart employees, many that have great ideas for the future, but unfortunately the culture at RIM does not allow us to speak openly without having to worry about the career-limiting effects.
The author then offers a list of critiques and potential solutions that come out of a management 101 PlayBook:
  • Focus product design on customer requirements and needs, not "strategic alignment, partner requests or even legal advice."
  • Recruit software managers who can actually get projects done and team members communicating.
  • Work on just a handful of projects and get them done well, much as Steve Jobs did on his return to Apple. (And look where it got them.)
  • Without better tools, developers won't create third party software, which will leave RIM products hopelessly behind iOS and Android devices.
  • Forget alleged technical superiority; learn how to market what the brand stands for and what users get from it.
  • When people aren't doing the job and won't, get rid of them and find someone who will.
  • Get a CEO who can deal with critical press and analysts and do what is necessary.
  • Improve internal relations with RIM employees and listen to them, because leaders are doomed without honest feedback.
This is exactly the list of changes you'd need a company to make if it were in RIM's shoes. Unfortunately, management's official reaction was what you might expect given the attitude co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie have demonstrated.

Nyah, nyah, nyah, we hear nothing

RIM gave BGR exactly the type of response that shows the company is doomed so long as it remains in its present form:
An "Open Letter" to RIM's senior management was published anonymously on the web today and it was attributed to an unnamed person described as a 'high level employee". It is obviously difficult to address anonymous commentary and it is particularly difficult to believe that a "high level employee" in good standing with the company would choose to anonymously publish a letter on the web rather than engage their fellow executives in a constructive manner, but regardless of whether the letter is real, fake, exaggerated or written with ulterior motivations, it is fair to say that the senior management team at RIM is nonetheless fully aware of and aggressively addressing both the company's challenges and its opportunities.
There's no need to read through the list of excuses, explanations, and self-delusion that followed. Management problems are rarely a sole issue of mechanics. They are almost always the product of attitude. And the attitude in the response speaks volumes. As always, RIM management knows best and anyone who questions that is disloyal, disingenuous, or downright dumb.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!
A CEO or two can always ignore pressure from the inside by firing insolent knaves. (Or waiting until they secure better positions and quit.) But, eventually, the outside pressure from partners and big investors will win out. RIM blinked on reshaping the management structure because a major investor was going to insist on a vote at next week's annual meeting. Instead, the company has a panel of independent directors on its board:
... whose mandate will generally be to (i) study the appropriate balance between an independent lead director or chair with full and exclusive authority customarily held by such an office holder, (ii) determine the business necessity for RIM's Co-CEOS to have significant Board level titles to assist their selling and other responsibilities with certain large customers in overseas markets, and (iii) propose and provide a rationale for a recommended governance structure for RIM, which will include clarifications of the Co-CEOs and Chair roles, as well as the Board's mandate.
This shows how insane the company's management has been. A CEO needs a "significant board level title" to work with large customers and overseas markets? What, being the chief executive officer isn't enough?

RIM is ego run amok. Until now, I thought the company at least had a chance. With this, assuming that the board takes its sweet time with its recommendations and a final report isn't made available to investors, I think RIM is doomed -- even more thoroughly than Palm was, although RIM (so far) has solid financials.

Practical issues can be difficult. Unchecked attitudes are the stuff of classic tragedy, wherein our co-Kings are done in by their own flaws, and they take everyone else with them.

Related: Image: Flickr user Yale B. Quan, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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