In the film Silence of the Lambs, FBI agent Clarice Starling picks the psychotic brain of imprisoned murderer Hannibal Lecter to help find another serial killer still on the loose:
"Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, his man you seek?," Lecter says.
"He kills women."
"No. That is incidental."
I thought of this exchange, oddly enough, when I read this post over at Spin Sucks about personal branding, and how people and organizations can stay relevant in a world of rapid change. The writer, Steve Kaplan, points to the example of Blockbuster, struggling to regain its market position after having its business model vaporized by Netflix:
Blockbuster lost sight of what the marketplace was doing, partially because they were tied up in real estate with their stores and couldn’t fathom people not showing up at their doors. By the time they embraced the online purchasing frenzy, Netflix was annihilating them, with others soon to follow.
The Blockbuster brand image was that of an old brand behind the times, tarnished almost beyond repair. While they have somewhat clawed back, it came at a heavy price, and in no way are they back to where they were before the switch to online rentals. Perhaps if they would have made staying relevant a priority, they might have seen things coming a little sooner and been able to salvage more of their brand image.
The problem with Blockbuster, however, was not that it clung too long to an outdated business model; that, as Dr. Lecter would say, is incidental. The problem was that Blockbuster didn't understand exactly what its business was in the first place. Remember what we've said here about newspapers? Like the railroad companies that thought they were in the railroad business, but were really in the transportation business, newspapers believed they were in the newspaper business but are really in the business of journalism. The delivery method should be -- you guessed it-- incidental.
Blockbuster is an entertainment company. They may not produce it, but they deliver it, and their mistake was getting too invested in one particular method of delivery. Walt Disney understood that his company was an entertainment business, not a movie studio, which was why he so easily transitioned to television when his competitors were crusading against it.
Netflix, for all its well-documented troubles, seems to understand that it isn't a business that sends DVDs through the mail, or streams them online, but that delivers entertainment in whatever format its customers demand at that particular moment in time. The lesson for all our organizations is to understand our nature, what it is we really do -- and not that which is merely incidental.