Declining interest from youth and Netflix weren’t the only pressures faced by Blockbuster Video in 2005. There were employees to keep happy, new stores to open and store footprints to optimize, novel video formats and video game systems to keep up with. If you had taken any 10 employees, you might have got 10 different answers as to what they thought the most important thing was for the business to focus on.
As a leader this is what you want—smart people from differing viewpoints looking out for the future of the organization—but in the end the business has to prioritize: it has to decide what to do and what not to do. In most organizations the moment for making these sorts of decisions is called strategic planning. Often the desired output from the strategic planning process is a concrete decision “our organization is going to do X” (for example, “Blockbuster will open 100 new stores”) but when uncertainty and disruption looms high the smart choice is to admit “we don’t know what to do but we know what questions to ask” and to create a mission-driven team to investigate. The key is getting good at recognizing what your organization doesn’t know and becoming ok with investing in finding out.
Flash back to 2005. Imagine you’re the Blockbuster Video marketer who first noticed rental revenues trending downward for folks aged 18–24. The marketing data that you collected suggests the younger the consumer, the less satisfied they are with their rental experience: a few are renting from Netflix by mailing back and forth DVDs, (“they always have the title I want, and there aren’t any late fees”) but others are spending their time and money elsewhere (and it’s not clear where). You want the business to find out, and to do something about it. You know this quarter’s strategic planning cycle is coming up, so you write a proposal. You want a team on it.
Let’s pretend our fantasy Blockbuster Video is adept at strategic planning. Executives are encouraged to propose mission-driven teams as strategic initiatives. It would go like this:
You write a strategic proposal proposing to charter a mission-driven team. At our fantasy Blockbuster, they’ve done away with creating presentation decks for strategic proposals. Rather, they’ve required writing prose in a lightweight “brief” so the friction to receiving as many ideas is as low as possible.
Our executives brief reads like this:
The Future of Blockbuster Youth Engagement
Why have sales with 18–24 year-olds declined and how could Blockbuster Video better serve them?
Marketing data reveals an increasing number of 18–24 year-olds are choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere: receipts were down 6% in 2004, and to-date are down further to 9%. We don’t yet understand why. We also don’t know what this segment is choosing to do instead. Failing to serve this segment is failing to build a long relationship with this consumer. Failing to build a relationship means risking losing market share to competition we don’t understand.
This brief is just that, brief. While the format of your actual company’s brief may differ but what’s important is it’s meant to be read, not presented.The brief is written to be as objective as possible. It cites black and white data and offers what impact these data will have on the business. It asks for resources on a fixed timeline to minimize variable costs. When it’s received by the executive team, it will allow them to quickly understand what is being asked and why the work is important.
Back to our scenario: You send the brief and the senior executives review it. They send it back asking for more data and copy other management in the company. It turns out what you were seeing was also observed by the buying team. You clarify your proposal and add these new data and are asked to join a portion of the strategic project selection meeting. A little later on you receive good news! The executives have chosen your project as a strategic priority. You’ve got a team and resources for a quarter.
Now, you’ve got to kick off and get to work...