Douglas MacArthur was one of the greatest military minds of all time. Considered by many to be a genius in modern warfare, he groomed some of our country’s best commanders, and his career actually spanned WWI to the Korean War.

A Costly Mistake

I want to talk about MacArthur and something that happened to him in World War I. According to The Generals: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall and the Winning of World War II by Winston Groom, Douglas MacArthur had an opportunity to seize a town in France, and that action might have ended the war sooner. According to the account, MacArthur asked permission from his U.S. general to seize the town, but his superior had been told by the French to move south (so don’t seize the town). Following orders through the chain of command, U.S. soldiers bypassed the town, and MacArthur would later write that this was the biggest blunder of the First World War.

MacArthur blamed the costly mistake on “the inflexibility of changing a preconceived idea.” I know this is true off the battlefield, as well. To be successful, leaders have to be flexible and adaptable—and not tied to preconceived notions.

Businesses Need Flexibility

I see inflexibility holding people back all the time in business. People decide on a strategy or a goal and when circumstances change, they are reluctant to alter their plan of action to better fit the new situation and move them toward success. This is why companies stay with an existing technology, product line, distribution channel or leadership that no longer performs as well as it once did.

All too often, it’s a lack of flexibility and a refusal to adapt that prevent them from making the right decisions and the necessary changes

Let’s look at the David-and-Goliath story of Blockbuster Video and Netflix. In the early 2000s, Blockbuster was a Goliath kind of a company with thousands of retail locations for movie rentals. Netflix, leaner and more David-like, was a tiny mail-order distributor with very little overhead (and no late fees—something Blockbuster depended upon to meet profit projections). Blockbuster had the bigger business by far. When the Netflix CEO came to Blockbuster proposing a partnership, Blockbuster said no—and we all know what happened next. Blockbuster, resistant to change, eventually went bankrupt. (Try finding a Blockbuster store outside of Alaska where seven of the eight surviving stores are located.) Netflix, with subscription streaming, video on demand and now lots of award-winning original content, is worth about $68 billion today—that’s billion with a B!

When Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix for $50 million, they refused. Blockbuster lacked the vision to see how the video rental business was changing (also, the company saw itself in the retail business, not the entertainment business); Netflix, much more nimble and open to new ideas, embraced change and came out the winner.

Other notable examples of companies that suffered from inflexibility and are struggling to adapt include Kodak, Polaroid, USPS, Sears, Kmart, BlackBerry, Dell, Radio Shack and Payless Shoes. The list, unfortunately, goes on and on.

This is one list none of us wants to be on.

We need to embrace change if we want to succeed. Consider new technologies, keep up with the latest trends, be open to new ideas. Most of all, be flexible and willing to adapt.

I recently read a Fast Company article that gave four suggestions for becoming more adaptable to change:

  1. Ask different questions.
  2. Accept multiple perspectives.
  3. Consider the bigger picture.
  4. Experiment and learn.

For more on that article, go to 4 Steps to Becoming More Adaptable to Change. It’s worth the quick read so you can begin today to become more adaptable and embrace change more readily. That’s how you do what you do better.