In 1985, a man named Israel MacAllister Booth sat down to write a letter to the shareholders of the Polaroid Corporation. Despite decreasing demand for instant cameras in the years prior, Polaroid was still a very successful company. And they were about to release the most advanced instant camera ever made: The Polaroid Spectra. With automatic focusing and a self-timer, this was a big deal.
It’s why MacAllister Booth, as CEO, was so confident when he wrote:
"As electronic imaging becomes more prevalent, there remains a basic human need for a permanent visual record. Whether that record fulfills an emotional requisite in the visual diaries of amateur photography or provides practical data in an industrial or scientific setting, the universal insatiable appetite for visual communication and portable information will be constant, reflecting a continuing need for instantly available, high-quality print media."
In short, don’t worry about digital we got this.
Of course, we all know now that they didn’t have it. That letter, and the assumptions it contained, turned out to be false. Sales continued to decline and the company eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Over 21,000 Polaroid jobs were lost.
So, why dust off this seemingly tired story in 2019? Because this one isn’t about Polaroid, it’s about us.
Companies are more likely to fail today than at any point in history. It’s not just Toys R Us, Sears, and Radio Shack, the average lifespan of an S&P 500 company has declined from over 60 years in the 1950s to less than 20 today. It’s staggering.
And we could talk all day about why this is, and how hard it is for organizations to navigate external forces like disruptive technology, globalization, and regulation, but that probably wouldn’t be entirely productive. Because too many of those conversations will land us in a place where we are repeating platitudes like, “The only constant in life is change.”
Unfortunately, platitudes don’t actually help us avoid Polaroid’s fate. They don’t help us make the change we need to make. In order to really understand how organizations might adapt more quickly, we need to remember this one thing.
Your story will expire.
Don’t worry, this isn't bleak nihilism or cliche carpe diem. The idea is that every person has very distinct phases in life. And in each phase, we define our identities with story. For example, I might say that I am a varsity football player who gets good grades.
But when we move to the next phase in life, those old stories expire. So, when that varsity football player goes to college and doesn't make the team, he has to define a new story. Nobody really cares about the parties he went to or the games he won in high school.
The same is true for organizations. The scrappy startup scales and its underdog story doesn't fit. The market leader gets disrupted and all they can do is talk about their success in the past. Real growth requires us to detach from old stories to write the next.
We don't grow when the glory days reign.
It may sound like an obvious point, but like most of life’s greatest truths, it’s easier said than done. Because the stories we tell about ourselves don’t die easily. It’s takes a lot of self-awareness to even see the inflection points in life. The moments where we are becoming something new. But if you miss those moments, you risk saying things like Polaroid’s success is guaranteed because instant photographs will always fulfill an “emotional requisite in the visual diaries of amateur photography.” Expired stories become expired truths.
So yes, it is true that we face a world that is changing faster and more than ever before. But as we stand here in the ashes of the Polaroids, Kodaks, and Blockbusters of the world, it’s important to remember that we are not the victims of circumstance. That we are not here just holding out hope for the best. We never have been.
Our stories may expire, but we don’t have to.
The pen is in our hands.