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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Innov8 (or Die): Skunkworking the Motorola Razr

CNN/Money recounts the story behind how a team of engineers and designers defied Motorola's own rules to create the cellphone that revived their company.

The RAZR - a play on a code name the engineering geeks dreamed up - was hatched in colorless cubicles in exurban Libertyville, an hour's drive north of Chicago. It was a skunkworks project whose tight-knit team repeatedly flouted Motorola's own rules for developing new products.

They kept the project top-secret, even from their colleagues. They used materials and techniques Motorola had never tried before. After contentious internal battles, they threw out accepted models of what a mobile telephone should look and feel like.

The "thin clam" project became a rebel outpost and a talent magnet within the company, and the team grew to as many as 20 engineers who met daily at 4 P.M. in a conference room in Libertyville to hash over the previous day's progress.

"Anytime you've got something radically different, there will be people who feel that we should be putting our resources on other stuff," says Roger Jellicoe, team leader on the project. "It was a kind of lock-the-door-and-put-the-key-beneath-it approach to product development." Digital pictures of the project were prohibited, so nothing could be inadvertently disseminated by e-mail. Models of the phone could leave the premises only when physically accompanied by a team member.

With an ambitious deadline of completion within the year, Jellicoe relied on non-standard methods to drive morale and speed ideation. For example, he set up a competition among five of his engineers to see who could come up with the best design. And engineering and design teams began combining their work, a back-and-forth process that became known as the "dance."

Lessons from MOTO RAZR:

1. Secrecy limits distractions.
By insulating its RAZR development team from the influence of corporate groupthink, Motorola got an innovative product that wowed the industry and consumers.

2. Research isn't everything.
Motorola's "human factors" unit dictated that phones more than 49 millimeters wide would be deemed uncomfortable by consumers. The RAZR team concluded otherwise. Their only data points: their own instincts.

3. Niche products can have mass appeal.
The RAZR wasn't designed to be a blockbuster. It was supposed to be a high-priced, high-end jewel to regain luster for Motorola. Yet with high demand, unit costs plunged along with the price for consumers - to as low as $99.

4. Missing deadlines doesn't mean failure.
The RAZR team was supposed to be done by February 2004; they weren't until summer. But getting it right meant a whole lot more than getting it done on time.

1 comment:

Jason Striegel said...

I never hear people discuss it, but I'd like to add another possible reason to the mix: the Razr had a memorable name and brand.

The mobile phone and pocket pc market has been a cesspool of product naming. t509, N70, 6030, etc. Even look at Motorolla's own high end MPx200/MPx220 line that was released around the same period as the original Razrs.

Every few months, the latest device comes out with some cryptic code name. These new devices get distributed from OEM to several carriers who each name the same product with a different cryptic name. Finally, the consumer is asked to get excited about an incredible new $300 phone that apparantly wasn't worth anyone's time to name appropriately. :)

If you look at how people resonate with the Razr and Slvr lines or even Blackberry devices, I think this is a major reason. There are a lot of better phones and PDAs out there (especially in the MS Smartphone camp), but they either have bizarre code-names, or each release has a different name from the previous.

Anyway, I'm looking at Verizon's plan deals right now and I can choose between an LG Chocolate, A Moto RAZR, and Samsung's mobile TV capable SCH-u620. Hmm... choices...