I’ve written before about the lessons we can learn from Research In Motion’s failure to keep ahead of their market (and we all saw how the market reacted to Netflix’s little flub), but with 2011 now behind us, I think there are some lessons worth revisiting.
Let’s take a closer look at two companies that were clearly top players: Research In Motion (RIM), once again, and American Airlines. Notice: the key word in that sentence is, “were.”
Here’s the bottom line, and the biggest lesson we’ve learned from 2011: even though you may be on top, it doesn’t mean you’re invincible. The problem with rising to the top is getting too arrogant – too cocky – and not bothering to maintain your competitive edge. We saw this hubris clearly displayed by RIM and American Airlines.
RIM taught us that even though you may be on top – even though you were the first in your industry to release a groundbreaking product – it doesn’t mean you can get away with releasing bad products. The customers are too smart for that, and they will take their smartphone business somewhere else (and, in fact, they have).
American Airlines taught us that it doesn’t always pay to be the lone wolf, and that there is safety in numbers. In the wake of a faltering airline business, we saw two great mergers: United and Continental, and Delta and Northwest. While the other major airlines combined forces, American tried to tough it out alone… And they failed: AMR went from being the largest airline in the US to small potatoes, barely eking in at third place behind the other major carriers.
What were the underlying culprits behind such poor business decisions? What were the causes that issued these companies their death sentences? Without being on the inside, it’s hard to say, but we can certainly take heed of the warnings in these tales of woe.
1) Stay On Your Game (Don’t Be Lazy)
When you’re on top, you could easily buy into the lie that you’ve done the work, and now is your time to reap the rewards. Not so fast. This is an ever-changing, dynamically-demanding world. Every day, technology is evolving and customers want the newest and flashiest technology available (e.g., iPhone 4S). If you decide to take a break from researching and releasing groundbreaking products, expect the customers to take a break from you (and possibly never return).
2) Stay In Your Game (Don’t Lose Touch with Your Market)
While the rest of the world was rapidly moving to touch screens, RIM was releasing the same old models. What’s more, they weren’t even good models. The promised QNX-based smartphones have been delayed twice, and RIM’s customers (and stockholders) are rapidly losing hope. Failure to keep your head in the game – and pay attention to what your competitors are doing and what your customers want – will cost you your competitive edge, your stockholders, and your customers.
3) Gather Your Allies (Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help)
All seemed hopeless for the airline industry until the two mergers were announced. Combining forces was the way to go, but American Airlines missed out. Either they thought they were untouchable in this market, or they just missed the boat. In either case, it’s better to ask for help than file for bankruptcy. Allowing your past success to cloud your current judgement might result in the collapse of your company.
4) Treat People With Respect (Don’t Forget the People that Make Your Business Run)
When you’re on top, it’s an easy trap to start thinking of yourself as better than the people who work for you. American Airlines went into tense negotiations with their pilots, and the reality is that how you treat your staff translates into how your staff treats your customers (i.e., not well). So not only was AMR receiving bad press from filing for Chapter 11, but now they were playing the “bad guys” in the battle with their own staff. Not a great move. When you’re calling the shots in a company, make sure you respect the people who work for you; they are a huge part of the reason you’re succeeding, and should be treated as such.
So as we get into the swing of 2012, take these lessons from 2011 to heart. As a business leader, it’s your job to say “when” – when to jump ahead of your market, when to protect your business, and when to show your customers/employees/stockholders you appreciate them. But, as we witnessed through various companies in the past year, just make sure you say “when” before it’s too late.