Is Change Always About Doing Something?

I am going to Bend, Oregon this summer to conduct a leadership workshop for a large education association. A couple weeks ago I discovered another reason why this trip is going to be both interesting and fun: the last Blockbuster on the planet is in Bend, and I am going to check it out. According to my research, it is just off the highway near a cannabis retailer and a pet cremation service. 

There was one additional store in remote western Australia until early this year, but it has closed making the Bend Blockbuster the sole survivor. There were two other stories in Alaska, but both went out of business last July.

Consider the fact that in 2004 there were 9,000 Blockbuster stores worldwide and in 2011 Dish Network bought Blockbuster for a “bargain price” of $320 million. By then Blockbuster had shrunk to 300 stores and filed for bankruptcy in 2010. But beyond being an iconic pop culture curiosity, what does this mean for contemporary leaders?

All organizations whether corporate, non-profit, public service, governmental, etc. want to be “innovative,” and their leadership seek to create a climate that encourages this. Peter Drucker, a renowned leadership consultant, educator, and author, observed that innovation is “change that brings on a new level of performance”. I frequently reflect on that in the context of what former Army Chief of Staff Erik Shinseki used to say about change. “If you don’t like change… you are going to like irrelevance even less!”

Effective leaders spend a significant amount of time trying to ascertain what is changing in the environment that will affect their organization’s future either positively or negatively. Sometimes they may spend too much time only looking for the new piece of technology, organizational structure, or product to pursue. While those are important, they must also ponder the following question: what are we doing now that we should stop doing?

Obviously, the leadership of Blockbuster failed to comprehend how the advent of Netflix and Redbox would eventually destroy them, but this is hardly an isolated case. Try to find a Howard Johnson’s (there is one in the USA), Tower Records, or a product produced by Eastman Kodak. These were huge corporations that failed to comprehend that they needed to stop doing something even though it may have been fundamental to their established brand. At times, you need to move in a new direction. 

One way leaders may seek to avoid Blockbuster’s fate is to compare how much “fixed” vs. “free” energy their organization has. “Fixed” energy is characterized by:

  • Stability.

  • Organizational commitment.

  • A top-down or lecture dialogue with employees.

  • Traditions.

  • Management focused on organizational design, resource allocation, and work standards.

  • Technology.

“Free” energy is often where organizations find new ideas or reevaluate old ones. It focuses on:

  • An adaptive environment.

  • Some “energy” in reserve focused on new ideas, products, etc.

  • Dialogue between leader and those being led.

  • Innovation.

  • Leadership focuses on the future and change.

  • Human beings.

The owners of the last Blockbuster were widely interviewed. They tweeted that their situation was “exciting,” and they were gaining a few new customers every day. I wish them well and am looking forward to my visit. A local brewery has also crafted a special beer, the “Last Blockbuster” that I will certainly try. This final store has truly established itself as a lasting testament to Blockbuster as a late ‘90s icon.

Leaders today live in a dynamic period of change. They must constantly evaluate their organization against changes in their operating environment, seek new ideas/opportunities, and reflect on what efforts/programs may be approaching obsolescence. How they manage the “free” vs. “fixed” energy in their organization may be critical. Otherwise they could become iconic instead of successful.  

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