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Principles: When to Form a Mission-Driven Team

Imagine you’re working at Blockbuster Video in 2005. You took pride in knowing that nearly everybody on the continent knew your brand, after all, there was at least one store in nearly every town. The stock price was high, but it began to trend lower for the first time in years. Competition with Netflix was fierce, but it looked like Blockbuster might prevail. Blockbuster had closed critical gaps in its offering: it had successfully launched an online DVD rental product and eliminated fees on late returns. Netflix’s streaming product wouldn’t launch until 2007.

One morning, a senior marketing executive comes to you with a printout from the latest presentation to the Blockbuster Board of Directors. It’s a report showing Blockbuster’s decreasing popularity with people aged 18–24. As a rising star on the marketing team, they assigned you to find out why. Although you couldn’t have known it at the time, you were given the one assignment that might have led Blockbuster to avoid bankruptcy just 5 years later.

To thwart Netflix, Blockbuster would have had to discover young people were valuing time online, the internet was maturing to distribute video content, and formulate and test a series of experiments leading the business in a different direction than the one it took. It didn’t. Now Blockbuster is no more.

Let’s go back to 2005 and reimagine a new way forward. Organizations persist because they are able to sense their current situation and respond appropriately. In this series, we’ll examine how good teaming habits are at the core of this ability. Together we’ll chart a new course together using hypothetical examples for one of the most spectacular disruptions and missed opportunities in recent history: Blockbuster.

Enter the Mission-Driven Team

Mission-driven teams go by many names: innovation teams, strategic teams, market discovery teams, process improvement teams, agile business teams, and so many more. What these teams have in common is they are tasked with asking and answering their own questions in pursuit of a lofty goal.

A mission-driven team is…

  1. Dynamic. It must change the plan as it uncovers new information
  2. Multidisciplinary. It requires a mixture of skills to do its job
  3. Challenging. Its mission has no immediate or obvious answer
  4. Purposeful. It can identify what it’s trying to learn and why its mission is important

This final principle, being purposeful, is the principle above all. It guides what work the team will choose to pursue, who will pursue it, and how it will be pursued. The purpose is expressed as a simple statement answering the question “why does this team exist?” It is the very first step in chartering a mission-driven team.

In the case of Blockbuster, the initial mission of our team is “find out what 18–24 year-olds might want from us so we can capture a new generation of customers.” This statement says who the team serves and why it’s important.

A mission-driven team does not have to be permanent. In fact, they are often temporary, funded and operated for a limited time. Because they often have a limited time to act, they prioritize by taking small, rapid steps that inform themselves and their sponsors to find out if they are on right track. If what they find is interesting their mission might be extended and expanded. Or, they might disband (with the team members moving on to a higher priority mission).

Saving Blockbuster

In the case of Blockbuster, finding out why sales with 18–24 years were softening might have led to find out the internet-usage habits of the same segment, which could have led to examining streaming technologies, leading to a streaming pilot, a streaming launch, and saving the company from Bankruptcy.

Let’s rewrite history, and charter a team that could have saved Blockbuster.

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