Nokia's Burning Ships strategy

In the recent series of exposés on Nokia’s new strategy I sought to paint a background for what caused such a dramatic decision:

This gives a backdrop to the decision, but it does not explain the most crucial part of the decision: why did Stephen Elop decide to maintain an exclusive platform for Nokia rather than a multi-platform approach as chosen by successful competitors such as HTC, Samsung and Sony Ericsson.

Going from backing one “burning” platform exclusively to backing another “ice cold” alternative without bothering with a hedging alternative is very risky. This may be the biggest puzzle and mystery for outside observers.

Here I put forward a few reasons why exclusivity attracted Nokia:

  1. The lessons of product focus (see why focusing on a few products is hard).
  2. The costs associated with Symbian and Meego were unreasonably high. (see Nokia employs as many people to develop its smartphone software as Apple does to develop all its products).
  3. The psychology of change management.

This last one may be the most crucial of all.

What has to be appreciated is how bloated Nokia has become. It has 140 thousand employees. It’s been organized and re-organized countless times and is completely intractable even to insiders. Cutting headcount can only accomplish so much. It deals with costs, but not with motivation. What management needs to do is also incentivize the survivors.

This is where exclusivity comes in as a motivational tool.

To explain we need to dip into a new metaphor. Conquistador Hernan Cortés landed in Mexico with the intention to conquer it. Legend has it that as soon as he landed, he burned his ships to prevent his men from retreating and motivating them that conquest their only option.[1]

Leaders motivating their followers by removing the means to surrender or retreat is not uncommon. It’s harsh and brutal. It’s not a natural thing do do: destroying perfectly useful options is value destructive and generates outrage, even mutiny.

In Nokia’s case, institutional inertia with a vestigial Symbian effort would compel the organization to maintain the current platform while treating the new alternative as a pathogen.

Counter-distruption theory states that the response to a disruption requires a focused approach through an autonomous challenger protected from corporate antibodies by the CEO herself. In this case, the autonomous organization is outside the company (Microsoft). Protecting the new effort was not possible with a Chinese wall. The only alternative was to simply get rid of the old and start with a clean slate.

While there are times it makes sense to burn ships to eliminate any ideas of retreat, there are other times when doing so is reckless. You can do the calculation on the basis of cost of being wrong and levels of uncertainty [2], but even when armed with all the data linked above, this decision can hardly become something that can be quantified.

It’s a gut-level decision.

I would say that Nokia’s new CEO did not just jump off a “burning platform” but that once he jumped he made sure it kept burning so that nobody thought of going back on board.


  1. There is a Microsoft precedent to this story. See Burning the Ships: Transforming Your Company’s Culture Through Intellectual Property Strategy (9780470432150): Marshall Phelps, David Kline: Books Burning the Ships recounts the decision that forced Microsoft to face its own ‘succeed or die’ moment. It’s a lesson in strategy and survival that speaks about the courage required to embrace radical business transformation.
  2. See also: Burning Ships