Okay, so barring a medical miracle, none of us will be around in a century, but what we’re committed to building during our lives just might be. So, we wanted to take a deep dive into how one of the world’s most famous institutions, the BBC, founded on this day in 1922, has used its commitment to change to not just survive – but thrive – through almost a century of unprecedented technological, social and political changes, and also to touch briefly on what lessons we can learn from watching its very public evolution.
But first, like every good news bulletin, let’s begin with the bad news, this time about business longevity. Research from McKinsey suggests that the average lifespan of a company has fallen considerably since records began, and that any business starting today would be lucky to see its 18th year. It also suggests that by 2027, 75% of companies listed on Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, currently worth $40.3 trillion, will have disappeared. While we all know the way we do business is changing, it doesn’t mean that businesses should disappear. But history is littered with big names that went bust, such as Blockbusters, Kodak and MySpace – and why? Because they failed to embrace change, that’s why. So what does the BBC do differently?
Well, firstly, some facts; since 1922, it’s gone through:
- five subtle changes of logo
- carried out its first radio broadcast in 1932
- pioneered foreign language services (Gaelic in 1935 and Arabic in 1938)
- announced in grave tones that ‘this country is at war,’ in 1939
- aired its first female newsreader in 1960
- unwittingly hosted the first live broadcast of an expletive in 1965 courtesy of Sir Kenneth Tynan
- carried out the first colour broadcast in 1967
- stayed up overnight in 1969 to marvel at the moon landings
- started the prestigious Young Musician of the Year competition in 1978
- shared Live Aid with the world in 1985
- turned itself into a 24 hour broadcaster in 1991
- joined the online news world in 1997 with a website that’s barely half the pixel width it is now
- before user generated content helped re-shape the site again in 2001.
We could go on – and they certainly will. See? Change is never done.
Secondly, it shows a great understanding of the old truism, that change is the only constant. When the BBC first started, the world was powered by steam and limited by literal physical distance; now it’s powered by imagination and creative dexterity, and the limits are being pushed back further every day. A daily space race between businessmen is now the norm, and they come back down to earth in time for breakfast and a morning Tweet. And throughout the past 99 years, the BBC has been quick to match the mood of the moment, never too proud to understand that its role is to reflect what its users want, rather than to dictate from an autocratic cribsheet. Its success comes from not only giving its audience what they need and want, but understanding that that too is constantly changing.
Thirdly, it knows itself well enough to know what not to change. Because while its methods, delivery, programming, schedules, technology and locations have all evolved, it’s never changed its message, and it’s never changed what it’s believed in. To think that the words ‘to inform, educate and entertain,’ have led its every decision for almost a century is a phenomenal achievement of foresight. But while those core principles have never wavered, it has had the courage to change how they’re delivered. From being a soothing, reliable presence throughout the Second World War, to boldly gauging the public mood at times of tragic, major events – it scrapped all its scheduled programming on 9/11 – to now advocating for inclusivity and diversity as championed by June Sarpong, it has always moved with the times in order to match them. For all its occasionally perceived rigidity, the BBC is actually a prime example of unparalleled flexibility.
While the size and influence of the BBC has allowed it to survive controversies that might have felled smaller companies, it’s never shied away from learning its lessons, either, however public. Just Google ‘BBC, apologies,’ and you’ll be able to see the many times it’s embraced its honest failings, whether the next day or, the next month, or in the controversial case of Martin Bashir’s interview with Princess Diana, almost 25 years later. And this really matters, because to be able to acknowledge your own mistakes is key to kickstarting the conversation about change; whether that change relates to governance, process, or even cultural attitudes; what did we do that was wrong? Why did it happen? And how can we be better next time?
Finally, another key component of the BBC’s success is that they’ve learnt that the most important question regarding change is not to ask what the change is, but how to implement it. In 2020, their former people manager, Deborah Rowland, stated that leaders needed to pay as much attention to how the change takes place, as to what the change actually is.
‘In today’s world of ongoing, disruptive and interconnected transformation, where really the answers to the ‘what’ are not as clear anymore, I contend that the only thing you can do is pay attention to the how,’
she said, impressing a point that is now considered a critical tenet of good change management.
The deep truth is that change is never done and viewing it as something to be ticked off a list is to miss the point – as well as all the positives. Change one thing, and you’ll invariably find that other things need changing, too. Find new clients, and you’ll need to adapt your approach. Team up with others in an ecosystem and you’ll need to change mindsets to embrace the new dynamic. Start with a single 6pm broadcast on November 14th 1922 and you’ll eventually end up with 129 television and radio channels, a Royal charter, and even your very own self-penned satirical spoof – W1A, come on down. So, whatever your business and whatever your metrics may be, you’re also on a perpetual journey of learning and change. So while the BBC might be the country’s flagship broadcaster, it leads the way in change and transformation, too.
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