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Three Small Words

I had the privilege of being a part of a spellbound group hear Greg Nielsen of Nielsen Training & Consulting talk about innovative boards. (If you have a chance to hear Greg speak, do it. Hint: He has an excellent podcast.)

During his remarks he brought us back to the mid-aughts, when Blockbuster employed more than 55,000 employees, following a tried and true model, humming along, safe from disruption. Or so it seemed.

At the same time, a small startup, Netflix, was beavering away, and in a few short years would overtake the market that Blockbuster currently dominated. Complete disruption of an entire market, and Netflix did it with 4,500 employees—about 92 percent fewer than Blockbuster employed.

I can’t help but believe that, among the 55,000 employees at Blockbuster, someone didn’t raise their head up and ask a question that skirted close to the Netflix model that would eventually eliminate them. My bet is the question started with, “What if we?”

Evidence suggests that question was met with something like “we can’t, because,” or “no, we can’t.” Too much of this leads to what I call the ‘shot down, shut down’ syndrome. If someone with ideas has those ideas shot down over and over again without any meaningful consideration, eventually that person stops surfacing ideas. What’s the point?

There's little doubt the same ‘what if we?’ question had popped into the minds of the Netflix team. But their answer was “how might we?”

Three small words: “What if we?”

Imagine your next 'what if we?' is met with either sets of three small words: “We can’t, because,” or “How might we?”

One path leads to mediocrity and eventual irrelevance. We know what happened in Blockbuster’s case. As of this writing they have exactly one store in operation.

Blockbuster didn’t have a culture that allowed for ‘what if we?’ and ‘how might we?’ thinking.

It all starts with a simple shift in thinking that doesn’t cost a thin dime. Instead of the automatic, ‘we can’t, because,’ catch yourself, and say, ‘how might we?’ instead.


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