OK, it’s not such a huge secret. Aspiring writers are told to “kill their darlings”; that is, to not get too attached to clever turns of phrase that don’t fit with the rest of the piece any more. A business has to be prepared to do the same, because today’s breakthrough innovation will inevitably become tomorrow’s dinosaur. A Business Design that is successful now isn’t likely to survive the next market disruption if you’re not prepared to pivot. Just ask BlackBerry.

Before designing and building User Experiences for eCommerce websites, I designed buildings, working as an Architect. Architects have a well-earned reputation for never wanting to stop designing. The story goes that in 19th century Paris when student projects were due at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts a cart, or “charette”, would come by each student studio to collect the work. Frequently the charette would also collect a few students, squeezing in a few more minutes of work on their project as the charette made its way to the Salon.

Fortunately, there’s a point in every project where the pencils must be put down and the plans delivered to the contractor, or else the building will never get constructed. The constraints of time, money, and location help focus the design and in the end make it better. But in business the constraints are different, because your Business Design is never finished.

Remember the BlackBerry?

It’s hard to remember how amazing it was, at the close of the 20th century, to have a device that fit in your pocket and let you send and receive emails from anywhere. Research in Motion, or RIM, as the company was called then, paired a brilliant product design with a brilliant Business Design and created a product that soon became a must-have for any businessperson or politician.

We complain about bad cell phone service now, but in 1999 the cell network was far slower and far smaller. Getting email to work over a slow and unreliable network was an achievement in itself; getting it to work reliably on a device the size of a deck of cards that could go all day on a single battery charge was close to witchcraft.

One of the ways that RIM solved their wicked problem was by building their own email server software that was designed to handle the cell network’s variability better than traditional email protocols. This led to a crucial piece of their Business Design.

Instead of selling primarily to users, RIM sold to businesses.

IT and Security managers at the time were not at all happy about the idea of company email going out over the cell network and into easily misplaced pocket computers. But RIM identified them as the users of RIM’s Business Experience and sold them on the security and remote administration features of their proprietary platform. By selling corporate IT on the BlackBerry, they could get their device into a thousand pockets in one fell swoop.

Conversely, individual employees wowed by the User Experience they saw on other people’s BlackBerries became an unofficial RIM sales force, demanding BlackBerry support from their employers and getting RIM into even more companies.1

A brilliant product, a brilliant Business Design, an army of customer evangelists — RIM and the BlackBerry looked unstoppable. But today their phone and their star co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie are gone. The world changed, but their Business Design didn’t.

RIM was so fixated on their unique vision of mobile computing that they totally discounted the idea that there was any other way.

When Apple announced the iPhone, RIM found it literally unbelievable — nobody there thought that a general-purpose computer that fit in your pocket and had more than an hour or two of battery life was even possible, and the idea that anyone would stand for typing on a tiny virtual keyboard was even more absurd. RIM planned no response to this new market entrant because they didn’t see the need.2

In retrospect (and even at the time) what happened next was obvious. Like the first BlackBerry before it, the iPhone’s User Experience — the combination of industrial design, interface design, and capabilities — became irresistable. Its ability to do 75% of what a laptop could made people overlook the virtual keyboard and the less-than-all-day battery life. But the most devastating blow to RIM’s Business Design was that it took corporate IT out of the loop. The iPhone could connect to any standard email system without having to ask IT to buy a special server. People who got BlackBerries for free from their employers spent their own money to buy iPhones because of the superior User Experience.

RIM attempted a pivot, but it was too late. The engineering head start that Apple had on them was too great to overcome, especially in light of the resources RIM squandered on the failed project of trying to design a touchscreen that would provide reliable haptic feedback similar to a physical keyboard. Today RIM, renamed BlackBerry, has wound down their phone business, and what comes next is anyone’s guess.

RIM let their Business Design stagnate, which is dangerous for any company but life-threatening in the fast-changing technology industry. They were so convinced that they’d gotten it right that they didn’t see the world changing around them. A company’s Business Design needs to be constantly evaluated. It’s an evolving system that can only sustain itself if it is designed to make adaptation an integral part of how it works.

It can be hard to hold on to the hard-charging inspiration that fuels the creation of a company and its first Business Design. Once things start working most companies are wary of turning everything upside down even in the face of coming change. So how does a company balance stability with innovation?

For some companies, the solution is to bring in some outside eyes. Target, known for using service and visual design as a competitive advantage and market differentiator, has recently created three “Entrepreneur-in-Residence” positions at their Innovation Center in San Francisco.4 By bringing in people from outside of the organization with a a different perspective and (crucially) giving them the freedom to prototype and test new ideas and the access to get them implemented, a company can avoid stagnation.

Even if you don’t create dedicated Entrepreneur-in-Residence positions, your company can maintain a culture of innovation. Listen to your new hires: make sure they internalize your culture, but don’t tune out their ideas either, even if at first they seem like they would never work at your company. Maybe their unique perspective lets them see a challenge differently than you are used to seeing it — the only way to know is to test it.

Always keep in mind that your Business Design is a living document. Evaluate your User Experience and Customer Experience regularly to see if they need revisions due to changing conditions inside our outside your company. Talk to your users often, and listen to both what they are saying to you and what they are saying with their actions. Establish a process for employees to propose new ideas and give them the resources to prototype, test, and learn from them.

Innovation isn’t automatic, but innovative thinking can be made a habit, built into the design of a successful business. What are you doing in your business to encourage innovative thinking? What you’re doing might be wildly successful right now, but don’t get too comfortable with it. Change is an inevitable opportunity.

Photo by Blake Patterson via Flickr, CC BY 2.0