The Buggy Whip Lesson: Recognizing a Mission Crisis

BuggyWhipIn a summer’s over “manifesto” of sorts, here is why I am so adamant about the need to more fully engage with our communities.

Business schools and “common knowledge” both tell stories of the crisis faced by “buggy whip manufacturers” with the advent and then the transportation victory of the automobile. As the horse and buggy faded from the scene, the need (and market) for buggy whips plummeted. The companies that remained totally or largely focused on that particular product gradually faded from the scene. Those that re-imagined themselves and transformed their business to meet the needs of the horseless carriage era survived.

The digital age has provided far more recent examples of similar social transformations impacting entire industries. A generation ago libraries had to determine if they were primarily about books or information. Those that chose the former, as long as they survive, serve a valuable historical function but are few in number and not part of the social mainstream. Needless to say, their future is not one of growth and vitality.

The immediacy and do-it-(all)-yourself nature of digital image capture has made film photography a distant memory for all but a handful of creators employing it for artistic purposes. Stuck too long in seeing photography as based in a particular product–film rather than a “mission” of image capture and sharing, neither Polaroid nor Kodak successfully navigated the rapids of that technological and social upheaval.

Print journalism is facing existential danger. Printed newspapers, manually delivered to homes and businesses, are an increasingly costly product; the time lag in receipt of news between the moment of occurrence and delivery of the newspaper is “so Twentieth Century;” print advertising (print journalism’s primary source of income) is incapable of competing with the cost and flexibility of the Internet (where advertising and sales can be directly linked); and centralized, highly curated, corporate information sources are suspect in an era when authority is distrusted (a trend that had it’s beginnings in the 1960’s). The future of news reporting is online. Media companies, if they can survive, must transition to that reality.

In each case the lesson is that if survival–much less organizational relevance or vitality–is important, awareness of major shifts in society are critical for any industry. That awareness must then inform a strategic analysis of the core business (What is our essential purpose?) and retooling the product (or creating new ones) that respond to the changed circumstances.

I believe that given challenges of change in economic, demographic, social, technological circumstances, the arts industry has been and is facing a mission crisis of similar (or even greater) proportions. The key to response is identifying our core purpose in a way that meets the needs of the world in which we exist.

And my prescription lies in increasing relevance, expanding impact–in more fully and more substantively engaging with our communities.



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  2. Doug —
    Great post, as always! Relevance is the key. It is THE magic word. We were just discussion ‘organized abandonment’ in class today. Relevance of the mission and its programs to the community is the key question. Interestingly, as for-profits re-invent themselves they typically dissolve one company to start another (or better yet — sell it to someone THEN start the new one). The nonprofit sector is much more resistant to the idea of dissolution. At the end of the day, however, it is frequently a statement of success in the original concept, not failure. Or at least not the nonprofit’s fault — as you note, the world is changing. The buggy business is mostly an Amish business today 🙂