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The Strategic Decisions That Caused Nokia’s Failure

The Strategic Decisions That Caused Nokia’s Failure

The moves that led to Nokia’s decline paint a cautionary tale for successful firms.

In less than a decade, Nokia emerged from Finland to lead the mobile phone revolution. It rapidly grew to have one of the most recognisable and valuable brands in the world. At its height Nokia commanded a global market share in mobile phones of over 40 percent. While its journey to the top was swift, its decline was equally so, culminating in the sale of its mobile phone business to Microsoft in 2013.

It is tempting to lay the blame for Nokia’s demise at the doors of Apple, Google and Samsung. But as I argue in my latest book, Ringtone: Exploring the Rise and Fall of Nokia in Mobile Phones, this ignores one very important fact: Nokia had begun to collapse from within well before any of these companies entered the mobile communications market. In these times of technological advancement, rapid market change and growing complexity, analysing the story of Nokia provides salutary lessons for any company wanting to either forge or maintain a leading position in their industry.

Early success

With a young, united and energetic leadership team at the helm, Nokia’s early success was primarily the result of visionary and courageous management choices that leveraged the firm’s innovative technologies as digitalisation and deregulation of telecom networks quickly spread across Europe. But in the mid-1990s, the near collapse of its supply chain meant Nokia was on the precipice of being a victim of its success. In response, disciplined systems and processes were put in place, which enabled Nokia to become extremely efficient and further scale up production and sales much faster than its competitors.

Between 1996 and 2000, the headcount at Nokia Mobile Phones (NMP) increased 150 percent to 27,353, while revenues over the period were up 503 percent. This rapid growth came at a cost. And that cost was that managers at Nokia’s main development centres found themselves under ever increasing short-term performance pressure and were unable to dedicate time and resources to innovation.

While the core business focused on incremental improvements, Nokia’s relatively small data group took up the innovation mantle. In 1996, it launched the world’s first smartphone, the Communicator, and was also responsible for Nokia’s first camera phone in 2001 and its second-generation smartphone, the innovative 7650.

The search for an elusive third leg

Nokia’s leaders were aware of the importance of finding what they called a “third leg” – a new growth area to complement the hugely successful mobile phone and network businesses. Their efforts began in 1995 with the New Venture Board but this failed to gain traction as the core businesses ran their own venturing activities and executives were too absorbed with managing growth in existing areas to focus on finding new growth.

A renewed effort to find the third leg was launched with the Nokia Ventures Organisation (NVO) under the leadership of one of Nokia’s top management team. This visionary programme absorbed all existing ventures and sought out new technologies. It was successful in the sense that it nurtured a number of critical projects which were transferred to the core businesses. In fact, many opportunities NVO identified were too far ahead of their time; for instance, NVO correctly identified “the internet of things” and found opportunities in multimedia health management – a current growth area. But it ultimately failed due to an inherent contradiction between the long-term nature of its activities and the short-term performance requirements imposed on it.

Reorganising for agility

Although Nokia’s results were strong, the share price high and customers around the world satisfied and loyal, Nokia’s CEO Jorma Ollila was increasingly concerned that rapid growth had brought about a loss of agility and entrepreneurialism. Between 2001 and 2005, a number of decisions were made to attempt to rekindle Nokia’s earlier drive and energy but, far from reinvigorating Nokia, they actually set up the beginning of the decline.

Key amongst these decisions was the reallocation of important leadership roles and the poorly implemented 2004 reorganisation into a matrix structure. This led to the departure of vital members of the executive team, which led to the deterioration of strategic thinking.

Tensions within matrix organisations are common as different groups with different priorities and performance criteria are required to work collaboratively. At Nokia,which had been acccustomed to decentralised initiatives, this new way of working proved an anathema. Mid-level executives had neither the experience nor training in the subtle integrative negotiations fundamental in a successful matrix.

As I explain in my book, process trumps structure in reorganisations. And so reorganisations will be ineffective without paying attention to resource allocation processes, product policy and product management, sales priorities and providing the right incentives for well-prepared managers to support these processes. Unfortunately, this did not happen at Nokia.

NMP became locked into an increasingly conflicted product development matrix between product line executives with P&L responsibility and common “horizontal resource platforms” whose managers were struggling to allocate scarce resources. They had to meet the various and growing demands of increasingly numerous and disparate product development programmes without sufficient software architecture development and software project management skills. This conflictual way of working slowed decision-making and seriously dented morale, while the wear and tear of extraordinary growth combined with an abrasive CEO personality also began to take their toll. Many managers left.

Beyond 2004, top management was no longer sufficiently technologically savvy or strategically integrative to set priorities and resolve conflicts arising in the new matrix. Increased cost reduction pressures rendered Nokia’s strategy of product differentiation through market segmentation ineffective and resulted in a proliferation of poorer quality products.

The swift decline

The following years marked a period of infighting and strategic stasis that successive reorganisations did nothing to alleviate. By this stage, Nokia was trapped by a reliance on its unwieldy operating system called Symbian. While Symbian had given Nokia an early advantage, it was a device-centric system in what was becoming a platform- and application-centric world. To make matters worse, Symbian exacerbated delays in new phone launches as whole new sets of code had to be developed and tested for each phone model. By 2009, Nokia was using 57 different and incompatible versions of its operating system.

While Nokia posted some of its best financial results in the late 2000s, the management team was struggling to find a response to a changing environment: Software was taking precedence over hardware as the critical competitive feature in the industry. At the same time, the importance of application ecosystems was becoming apparent, but as dominant industry leader Nokia lacked the skills, and inclination to engage with this new way of working.

By 2010, the limitations of Symbian had become painfully obvious and it was clear Nokia had missed the shift toward apps pioneered by Apple. Not only did Nokia’s strategic options seem limited, but none were particularly attractive. In the mobile phone market, Nokia had become a sitting duck to growing competitive forces and accelerating market changes. The game was lost, and it was left to a new CEO Stephen Elop and new Chairman Risto Siilasmaa to draw from the lessons and successfully disengage Nokia from mobile phones to refocus the company on its other core business, network infrastructure equipment.

What can we learn from Nokia

Nokia’s decline in mobile phones cannot be explained by a single, simple answer: Management decisions, dysfunctional organisational structures, growing bureaucracy and deep internal rivalries all played a part in preventing Nokia from recognising the shift from product-based competition to one based on platforms.

Nokia’s mobile phone story exemplifies a common trait we see in mature, successful companies: Success breeds conservatism and hubris which, over time, results in a decline of the strategy processes leading to poor strategic decisions. Where once companies embraced new ideas and experimentation to spur growth, with success they become risk averse and less innovative. Such considerations will be crucial for companies that want to grow and avoid one of the biggest disruptive threats to their future – their own success.

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About the series

Corporate Governance
The INSEAD Corporate Governance Centre harnesses faculty expertise across multiple disciplines to teach and research on the challenges of boards of directors in an international context with the goal of developing high-performing boards.
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Rahul Tripathi

30/03/2024, 03.42 pm

I found this article on the strategic decisions behind Nokia's failure incredibly insightful! 📉 As someone interested in business strategy and management, understanding the factors that led to Nokia's downfall provides valuable lessons for avoiding similar pitfalls in the future. 💡 The analysis of Nokia's missteps, from failing to adapt to changing market trends to underestimating the competition, highlights the importance of agility and innovation in today's dynamic business landscape. 🔄💡

Moreover, the article offers actionable insights that can be applied to various industries, making it a must-read for anyone involved in strategic decision-making processes. 🌟 Thank you for sharing such informative content! I'll definitely keep these lessons in mind as I navigate my own business endeavors. 👍📚


Anonymous User

16/03/2022, 10.44 am

Nokia is the one of the oldest phone and also it is existed until now


Anonymous User

17/09/2021, 07.41 pm

Why does Nokia fail


Anonymous User

26/06/2021, 09.54 pm

Someone really should dig into the tale of Nokia Music, that of OD2, a successful independent company bought by Nokia in 2007. In less than four years through marketing bodges, strategic failures, interference from gormless management in the USA, and even more nepotistic and mostly incompetent management in the UK, a profitable company with numerous high profile corporate customers was brought to its knees by talent free people who should never have been promoted into the positions they were in. Well worth digging into, just don't interview the management or you will never get to the truth.


Anonymous User

03/06/2021, 01.56 am

As I read through many of these comments, the word "dillusional" kept coming to mind. For starters, Windows OS was as good as either Android or iOS. The main thing lacking were just a few more core apps. That was really it.

Sure, they could easily have run Andoid, and as soon as that idea was floated, Microft instantly shuttered their offices.

The fact that Nadella had his trojan horse Elop do the deal on Friday and hand everyone their walking papers on Monday is proof positive that Microsoft never had any good intentions for Nokia.

MS could have easily thrown one of their legions of Devs onto the task of writing apps. which would have solved the app. store issue in a hurry.

Instead, Nadella destroyed Microfts own eco-system by loosing that lucrative and Crucial market sector. A permanent wound that still haunts them to this day, and showcased Nadella as being far Inferior to Ballmer as well as Gates.

While my first inclination is to assume some nefarious reason for this, I do have to acknowledge however the old addage: "Don't attribute to maclice, what can easily be explained by stupidity"


Anonymous User

30/10/2020, 04.23 pm

Why only Nokia there are a number of business world wide which have failed because of its own Founders/CEO/COO lapses some of the reasons which I contribute are as follows....
1. Lack of vision future
2. Innovation in new age computing revolution
3. High Salary package
4. Founders cannot be pushed out or replaced easily.
5. Management Decisions
6. Dysfunctional Hierarchy
7. Growing Bureaucracy
8. Internal rivalry


Anonymous User

21/01/2018, 12.17 am

Captain of the ship knows how to sink the boat. Stephen (the first non Finnish CEO in history of Nokia) joined in 2010 from Microsoft and made a deal to use Windows only despite the fact that Android was growing and already captured huge market share. There was a lot of pressure from Nokia employees to move to Android but he ignored all. He fired a lot of people. It was famous in Nokia Espo office (H/Q) that he is a Trojan Horse. He later sold Nokia mobile business to Microsoft and earned millions of dollars in the deal. Later, he joined Microsoft again. Looks like the plan was to promote Windows Mobile at the cost of Nokia (that failed badly)


Sheila Yovita

13/01/2018, 04.20 am

If the company is at crises, what should the managers do? Could it be one of the option go for advices from top management consulting firms or any other third parties that can help to formulate better strategies to save the company? Assuming they went for consulting firms, then the firms were failed to help Nokia as well?


Anonymous User

22/12/2017, 02.34 am

I would love to also see something similar about Blackberry. They were the prime brand for many early adopters and business users of cellular phones here in the USA. Similar to Nokia they also had/have secure network platform. I wonder if their demise was also due to strategic mistakes, and if similar to Nokia they also got bogged down with tactical activities and lost sight of overall strategy.


Anonymous User

21/12/2017, 05.00 am

I agree with everyone, broadly. Nonetheless we should NEVER FORGET that Nokia would be far far better (as a Smartphone maker), than it is today.

Another illustration of a North American Corporation that did so well from its foundational years in the 19th Century and well into its first centenary is NORTEL Networks... I read a book about the rise, growth and maturity of NORTEL and it became one great role model for me...
Unfortunately, NORTEL failed to go the length any longer than the beginning of the 21st Century; NORTEL collapsed for reasons that are too embarrassing to speak openly abbout - or even in privacy!

I'm working on to establish a Corporate and Product Branding Consultancy in town (Accra, Ghana), and this article on Nokia, like others, is what I've been looking out for, to help learn and know how to start and grow an enterprise and keep it growing and succeeding decade after decade, century after century!

I'm learning!


Anonymous User

17/12/2017, 07.59 pm

"While Symbian had given Nokia an early advantage, it was a device-centric system in what was becoming a platform- and application-centric world."
Well, actually Nokia pioneered the app-centric world. Go check. Only it's User Interface didn't keep up with the emerging competition.


Anonymous User

07/12/2017, 05.51 am

Nokia is still alive... and much more than a mobile phone manufacturer. Nokia is the biggest network equipment maker in the world, employees +100k people and ~25 billion € in revenue in 2016...


Anonymous User

30/11/2017, 05.40 pm

Good article. Thanks.

Interesting side note: While working in Japan around 2002, I heard "on the street" that Nokia ran a research center in Japan. Intended to tap the vast and growing Japanese mobile market. They saw everything that was coming in the Western world. Good cameras. Apps. Cost effective mobile internet & services. Mobile email messaging on a mass scale. Multi media devices. Long before the iPhone was invented. Nokia deemed the Japanese market too challenging and closed their research center. Turned a blind eye. The competition was already too far ahead.


Anonymous User

28/11/2017, 03.21 am

Another consideration is that Nokia stayed committed to hardware-based human-computer factors as differentiation far longer than it should have: optical strip for scrolling, buttons for menus, buttons for navigation, etc. What the iPhone showed is that software-based UX was the more flexible and powerful approach.


Anonymous User

26/11/2017, 04.40 pm

Just imagine, if Nokia had seen the future and adopted Android operating systems before 2009-10, perhaps the horizons of the mobile Eco system would have been very different today. Similarly, Blackberry also failed to see the shift in the mobile market from a communicating device to a multi Media device. Phones transcended the mere communication and functional level to take control of our social lives and presence. The social sites and e commerce growth were trends and changes that both these behemoths failed to see or gauge. They still remain extremely hardware centred, building very physically robust devices but perhaps falling short on the imagination part. I think this is entirely a matter of leadership vision and imagination.


Anonymous User

25/11/2017, 12.00 am

Unless I am misremembering, I am sure I had a Samsung phone in the early 2000s. It was nothing like the Samsung mobiles of today. It was not user friendly, the operating system was a mess and I soon went back to Nokia but it's not true to say that Samsung hadn't entered the mobile communications market, they just hadn't entered the smart phone market. (Not that I don't agree with the thrust of the article - Nokia's downfall was very much of its own making).


Anonymous User

24/11/2017, 11.53 pm

I think a similar story can be told about Microsoft under Ballmer.
What Symbian was for Nokia, Windows was for Microsoft at one time.
Nadella came in just at the right time to lift the company out of that slumber and made it take a leap of faith in the Cloud world.
The results are evident. Microsoft is sailing at its lifetime best share prices.
On the contrary, when we look at Apple, they seem to be following the footsteps of Nokia. Slowly but surely they are becoming a victim of their own success.

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