During the second half of the 19th Century, rail transportation in the United States was a booming enterprise. Expanding to every corner of the land, this lucrative growth industry seemed unstoppable. Yet within 70 years of its heyday, rail companies tumbled. And today, their impact of is negligible (beyond Amtrak and lines of Thomas the Tank Engine toys). What on Earth happened?
Well, the world changed. The advent of automobiles, trucks, buses, and airplanes simply made trains less necessary. Less relevant. So they faded away.
But what if these companies had maintained a broader vision? What if they hadn’t been here simply to support railway systems, but rather to solve transportation needs of all sorts? Had that been the case, these businesses might still be major players in air, land, and sea travel today.
The mistake of overspecialization has plagued virtually every industry, large or small. We’ve seen this sad tale play out time and time again.
In the arts, for example, consider record labels. So massive was their influence and power just 15 short years ago that the top handful of multi-billion dollar corporations were oft referred to as the “music industry.” But make no mistake. That’s not how they approached the game. Instead, they were the “sound-reproduced-on-physical-products-industry.” Which explains why the move from records to CDs worked so seamlessly. Yet when digital reproduction and distribution became reality, the consequences were devastating. Imagine how differently history might have been written had these companies truly seen themselves as the backbone of a comprehensive and ever evolving music business.
Or how about orchestras? These organizations boast a rich and glorious tradition. But even so, American orchestras today are declaring bankruptcy at an alarming rate. What business are they in? Serving as a cultural and creative hub? Transforming communities through music? Celebrating the unique artistic identity of a region? Not even close. Instead it’s much more narrowly defined: “Large ensemble music featuring a combination of strings, winds, and percussion performing primarily Western classical music by dead Europeans.” Hmmm…During this tumultuous time of disruptive change, couldn’t these ensembles rescue themselves from extinction by thinking wider and re-imagining core purpose?
What about your own career? Do you just do that one very specific thing (i.e. play classical oboe, choreograph ballet, paint landscape murals)? Or is your mission open and flexible, ensuring that your work will remain necessary, valuable, and valued no matter how much the world evolves, in any direction?
True, you can’t be all things to all people. True, there are tremendous benefits to addressing a particular niche. Just be sure that the positioning you choose is broad enough to ensure there will always be demand for your art.