Adapt or Die

Gail Hyman warned recently in this space about the temptations of taking on projects that fall outside one’s mission. There’s another danger that is potentially more serious: defining mission so narrowly that an organization can’t adapt to changing needs and circumstances.

The textbook example is American railroads. In the 19th century they bound the young country together while making huge sums of money for legendary multimillionaires like Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jay Gould, Charles Crocker, and Henry Huntington, who owned them. Their mission was to move goods and people from place to place with what was then the latest transportation technology, and for a long while they filled a critical need.

Crucially, those organizations defined their service too narrowly. They thought of their service as supplying trains rather than filling transportation needs. And as other kinds of transport came along the rail lines were less and less able to respond to the needs of the public, to the point that they have now been almost entirely eclipsed.

Which takes us back to Gail’s Connecticut farm stand. “Imagine my outrage,” she writes, “when a stop … delivered a big display of California oranges, lemons and avocados as well as some Washington State cherries – but no local corn!” She explains, “there is something wrongheaded about a business approach that refutes the very essence of the farm stand experience. I stop at the stand because I want to inhale that earthy smell of produce that just came from the field. I want to see those stripes of mud on the cucumbers and tomatoes.”

I understand how she feels. Someone else might say that seeing TV programs via DVR and DVD isn’t the real television experience – that the essence of television is to watch what tens of millions of other Americans are watching at the same time. But defining the essence of an experience is an aesthetic judgment, not a basis for public service. Family farming is less and less viable economically, and now the main competitive advantages of roadside stands are location and atmosphere rather than the uniqueness of what they sell. Network television is a declining industry too; people now watch video whenever they want. In general, companies that survive will do so by continuing to serve the evolving needs of their public, not by holding to a fixed way of doing business.

My own field, the arts, has changed tremendously in the last generation. Concert venues like Carnegie Hall, which used to define their mission as presenting great musicians, now have big budgets for educational activities as well. Their audiences know less about music than did concertgoers 30 or 60 years ago, and presenters are giving them the opportunity to learn. Concert halls are not drifting dangerously away from their core mission; they’re changing with the times. Organizations, like organisms, evolve in order to adapt, or else they end up like the railroads.

A vital public-service organization has to keep asking itself how well it is serving the public, not in the narrow sense of continuing to do the same thing consistently, but in the larger sense of filling people’s changing needs. Gail is right to warn us against casual, opportunistic shifts in mission. Let’s also stay close to the emerging needs of our publics and find new ways to keep serving them effectively.

Bob Goldfarb, a longtime executive and consultant and a Harvard MBA, is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. He is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.