Book review: Operaatio Elop and Turning The Flywheel

Operaatio Elop

This book is based on interviews with more than 100 people who had indirect or direct experience with Nokia at the time. It’s about what happened between 2010 and 2013 under the reign of the former CEO – Stephen Elop and how Nokia fell apart in a matter of years. The book was originally in Finnish only, but some volunteers created an English version and that version was generously shared with the world for free here.

Nokia was at the peak of its power back in 2005 to 2007. At the time, there were seismic changes in the cut-throat personal phone industry with the introduction of Android and iOS, the iPhones, iPad and the App Store. Nokia, at the time, started to realize it had problems at hand and the CEO wasn’t up to the task. The search for a new CEO culminated with the appointment of a Canadian named Stephen Elop. Stephen introduced a host of initiatives during his time, but couldn’t turn around the fortune of the Finnish giant. The tumultuous reign ended with the controversial acquisition of Nokia by Microsoft, a shocking fate for a brand that just a few years prior had been among the top 5 in the world.

Nokia had a lengthy list of problems. The Board had insufficient industry experience and the Chairman was widely regarded as one of the main culprits for the fall of Nokia. Their go-to-market strategies faltered. For example, Nokia couldn’t have the same relationship with network providers in the US. It didn’t launch early enough the dual SIM feature in India. It also missed a critical Lunar New Year shopping period in China one year. Moreover, their product development couldn’t deliver. They didn’t have the advanced chip used by other competitors at the time. Their feature phones slowly became a thing of the past, but their smartphones couldn’t sell. Nokia couldn’t get developers to develop apps for their new phones and as a consequence, the lack of useful apps rendered their phones less appealing to consumers. The vicious cycle kept going on. Their partnership with Microsoft wasn’t perfect as Windows had a modest market share and developers didn’t have a lot of love for Microsoft at the time.

Nokia had many capabilities and assets at the time. Yet, it failed to address internal problems and respond appropriately to the changes in the external environment. This is a lesson for businesses. Past achievements mean little for survival when there is a lack of responses to the changing environment.

The author made it clear that the book mainly offered another perspective on Nokia and its collapse, rather than had exclusive truth on what actually happened. Also, even though many could fault Elop for the collapse and they might be right, given his managerial blunders, the book made it clear that with all the challenges the company faced at the time, it’s unclear if anyone could do better than him. That’s kinda what I feel. Hindsight bias is the easiest. Anyone could look back and critique others on what they should or shouldn’t have done, especially all these analysts I see on Twitter. The fact and the matter is that inside a company, there is a lot going on. Managing a multi-national company is no easy feat. We can and should keep the powerful honest and in check, but we shouldn’t be too arrogant.

Out of the three members of the appointment committee, only Ollila had experience in the technology industry, but even he, according to many, was not in touch with the service-driven internet-age mode of operation.

“Two of Nokia’s fiercest competitors, Apple and Google, obviously had boards more competent in global technology and internet knowhow than Nokia. To aggravate the situation, the Nokia Board of Directors was manned more with fine titles than substance. Scardino was the only American on the board despite the fact that the highest level of software competence was found in the US”

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

The situation was worst for the company’s biggest money maker, its smartphone operating system Symbian. With over 6 million lines of code, the software platform had become unmanageable. Hardware design and Symbian software development were almost in a state war and were at each other’s neck daily.

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

“For example, the normal trial-and-error software development technique was no longer used in Symbian software development. A person who was in charge of software development says that the problem was in the management which adjusted and fine-tuned projects ad nauseam. Even according to Nokia’s internal evaluation, the projects with the least management level involvement were the ones best on schedule. When the engineers were left alone to do their work, the results came forth.”

An employee working in the strategy department resorted to check the true status of upcoming phone projects from a friend working in development, because the official status given could not be trusted. Nokia was the emperor with new clothes, but nobody dared to say it out loud.

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

“In just three months Nokia had made the decision that would seal its destiny. This decision were prepared by a man who had only worked for the company for five months — a CEO who had come from outside the industry.”

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

“The N9 became an awkward pain point to Elop. Critics liked the phone but Nokia could not promote it because there was a fear that it would dilute the success of the Lumia phones. It looked like the success of the N9 came as a surprise to Elop. It would have been difficult to imagine how consumers would be interested in a device that was a dead end with a limited supply of applications. When Elop had been asked in London why anyone would buy the first and the last MeeGo phone, the man with a flu had responded: “I guess you just answered your own question.”

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

Carolina Milanesi is an analyst who has been following Nokia for several years. She believes the crucial mistake at Nokia was to cling to Symbian for too long. The end result could have been different if the Symbian ramp-down had begun in already early 2010 and all development and marketing investment shifted to MeeGo.

“The credibility vanished. Developers were faced with a dilemma: Why build Symbian applications when the market fell from under the platform? Why build Windows Phone applications when there was no market?”

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

Missing the Chinese New Year — the best shopping season of the year — was a pivotal mistake by Nokia in a situation where their market share on the Chinese smartphones market was already less than one percent.

The most significant markets for Nokia’s mobile phones were in India. Nokia made a critical mistake in bringing dual-SIM phones late to the market. According to Ramashish Ray, who was responsible for retail sales in India, Nokia was two years late: “Slow reaction to market reality, leadership bureaucracy and the diffusion of the decision making to too many forums”, Ray lists the reasons for the delay of the dual-SIM phones.

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

Nokia’s phones were not killed off by a murderer from Canada. What killed them was the arrogance born in Nokia’s own country, concentrating on costs, unclear responsibilities, and bad decisions made by the company’s board.

Excerpt From: Pekka Nykänen. “Operation Elop.” Apple Books.

Turning The Flywheel

Unlike Operaatio Elop, Turning The Flywheel is a very short book. It is a summary of the Flywheel concept that Jim Collins discussed at length in his previous book: Good to Great. This concept essentially looks at a few select activities that a company must do, in relation to one another, so that the company can stay competitive. For instance, Amazon manages to sell goods at a lower price and in a big variety. That attracts consumers; which in turn attracts merchants to Amazon. Because of the bigger bargaining power, Amazon can lower the prices and expand its catalogue. The cycle keeps going on.

Each pillar in the Flywheel can constitute several critical capabilities of a company. I consider this concept as a useful practice for management to really think about what a company can do and should focus on. By no means does it mean that the Flywheel is an answer to everything. Businesses still need to pay attention to the external environment. We already saw with my review of Operaatio Elop above that Nokia, despite having resources and capabilities, still failed to adapt to the changing environment and collapsed. It’s the job of the management to constantly assess whether the current capabilities are still up to date and can help the company respond to the external challenges.

The book should serve as a launchpad and guide readers to more materials and references on business strategies and the Flywheel concept. If you’re new to it, it should be a helpful read.

Finnish education

I was lucky enough to live and study in Finland for a while. It is and will always be my “second home”, even now that I have already lived in Canada and America as well. It is where I forged relationships that have been instrumental in my life ever since and where I grew up significantly as a person.

Finland isn’t a country rich in natural resources. Its population is just 5.5 million people. Yet, it’s one of the most advanced and happiest countries in the world. A key reason is its world-class education. There is no shortage of coverage on the greatness of Finnish education, so I am just going to tell you a few personal stories I had while living there.

In our Bachelor’s program, there was one math course. We Vietnamese grow up learning complex math problems so the kind of math we had in that course was pretty easy. My classmates struggled at first. Yet, I saw first hand that they spent only 2-3 hours a day after class on math problems and achieved progress that I knew myself I wouldn’t have had. It’s incredible and a bit shameful for me to witness. I had years of a head start, but deep down I knew that without it, I wouldn’t have been able to grow as much in a short amount of time as my Finnish friends.

The first ever class in our program was with our Dean in an auditorium of 80 students. We often had debates and presentations. Most Vietnamese students were very shy and quiet, yet my Finnish peers were confident, persuasive and critical, to the point that the Dean, who is a Swedish American, said this about one guy: “he is terrifyingly persuasive”. The same ability to communicate with confidence and substance was consistent throughout the time I was there, either in or outside of the classroom.

One time, I was sitting next to a guy in class. He was gluing his eyes to a book. I asked him what he was reading and his response was “An Arabic dictionary”. It turned out the guy could speak 6-7 languages already and was trying to learn a new one. In addition to that guy, I was friends with another guy who could speak 7 languages and play piano well. In Finland, the official languages are Swedish and Finnish. English is so popular that many Finns speak the language like native speakers. Plus, a lot of Finns learn a language or two in high school and spend time abroad. So it’s very common to meet Finns who can speak multiple languages.

Moreover, Finns are very modest. They tend to display a healthy level of shyness and play down their abilities. I rarely detected a sense of ostentation from my Finnish friends or folks I met over there. If you meet a Finn salesman to ask about a service or product, don’t be surprised to hear something along the line of “it works!”. In my experience, Finns are like that. Down-to-earth, direct, modest, honest and genuine.

I came across a clip that explained quite well the modesty and why Finnish education is so good. Have a listen.