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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Botched Project: Borders Books & Music

     Look at Borders Books & Music. Actually, you can’t look at it. It’s gone, as of September 2011. Defunct, at the age of 40.
     Tom and Louis Borders probably didn’t consider themselves project managers, but their clear vision and consistent follow-through produced a hugely successful commercial project. For a while.
     The two University of Michigan students started in 1971 with a few used books in an upstairs room or two in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Their concept was an engaging one, and shortly they opened a real store. Phase One of the project.
     Were you ever in a Borders store back in the ‘70s, ‘80s – even into the ‘90s? It was a booklover’s dream. Books, thousands of them. Endless shelves of books – fresh books, old books, every possible kind of book. Soft chairs to sit in and soft-selling staff people who knew books, loved books, could talk about books.

    There would be a café where you could sit all day if you wanted to, drinking coffee and reading newspapers amid crowds of other booklovers.    
     What a concept! Then, as with many other good and deserving ideas, it became a larger project. A great idea here is a great idea everywhere. Let’s share this pleasurable experience with booklovers around the state, the country, the world.
     So it multiplied. Eventually, it grew prodigiously.

     Four decades later, in 2011, the now-huge and stumbling Borders Group staggered into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  
     The Borders brothers were long gone by then . . . as was the defining philosophy that had made their stores so endearing. The project had morphed into something entirely different, because the project managers became radically different.
     Tom and Louis had set up each store to be tailored to the interests of the people of its community, and there was a specialist in each store whose job it was to go out into the community and invite the community in. Local authors got shelf space, even if no one ever bought their books.
     You couldn’t walk into a Borders in those days and not be enthralled and amazed at the way it looked, the way the booksellers and customers acted.
     The resulting growth outpaced the brothers’ capacities as project managers. The character of this project was increasingly not a booklover's paradise.
     After not so long, the Borderses sold out. People with management skills more suitable for national/international business became the decision makers.
     Increasingly, the leaders were bigtime retail executives, not like the original booklovers. Their decisions revolved around selling numbers of items. Were they readers? Not sure. It certainly was not part of the job description. At the beginning of Borders, you never had to ask.

     None of this seemed to bother anyone much, and that’s too bad – because it turned out to be fatal for Borders.
     The new leaders did not share either the literary vision or the coherent business model of the original Borders project. They did what they were familiar with, and the stores become more and more what those managers were used to.
     And the intended customer, as a result turned out to be the target market already owned by Barnes & Noble, Crown Books, Amazon and Walmart. So, having given up the distinct nature that had made Borders unique, what did the big-box executives come up with?
     Nothing much, it turned out. Borders remained an also-ran, and a number of initiatives – such as international expansion, online sales, an e-reader project – worked spottily, then failed. 
     Things changed directly and specifically at the stores.
     No more local books. In fact, even the end-cap displays were now dictated from headquarters in Ann Arbor. Endcaps are those arrangements on the ends of the bookshelves that promote things in spaces that otherwise would be blank.

     The Borders store in my community had opened in 1995. Instantly, it was full of vitality and book buyers. Originally designated a “C level” operation, it was an “A level” store from the very first moment.
     It kept that A-level performance going for 16 years, always well stocked with browsers and buyers, kids and parents and all those scholarly-looking people as well as perfectly ordinary folks. This place had our DNA.
     Borders was a project, and our Borders in South Portland, Maine, was a constructive part of that project. Now it’s gone, even though it was still thriving at the end (somewhat constrained, but alive and well, considering).
     Perhaps appropriately, when that Borders building in South Portland eventually reopened, the occupant was Books-a-Million, which makes no pretense of being a booklover's paradise.
     It stocks books, sure, but the books are no big deal among the other remnants-type stuff it sells. Like the later Borders executives, the Books-a-Million managers don’t come off as readers. Reading books, loving books has nothing to do with their business model.
     We still have local bookstore survivors here, though.  Stronger, as a matter of fact, after what has happened. Not as numerous, but vigorous and popular. They very definitely know who they are, what they are, and they stick to it. They’ll be all right.   

     That’s the lesson in the sad demise of Borders Group, and it applies to every one of us, every day. Keep your eye on the ball. Scope creep is scope creep. Projects can die of it.

See also -- A Project: Rating Managers


  1. Good article Jim about a good and worthwhile project that lasted 40 years. This reveals that at time planning in flexibility and adaptability has value. What would have happened, had they been able to incorporate tolerance over the years, and for example, ushered in the internet cafes... who know they could have predated Starbucks... Who knows... where they might be today.

  2. Agreed, Everet. My approach, as a functional manager as well as a project manager, has been to go into any situation, study its purpose and market as well as its operations, then make changes organically. Surgery when necessary, but first education and leadership based on understanding.

    The root of the Borders problem was that familiar know-it-all syndrome on the part of incoming executives, importing what they learned elsewhere and ignoring what is in place. Once they destroy the soul of the enterprise, it has no reason to stay in business.

  3. This is not a project, because it was not intended as a temporary endeavor. This is a case study of a business. It did not have consistent objectives over the years, or a fixed timeline (due date) for completion. I wouldn't call it scope creep either, but more of a business going through expansion and retraction as it changed its mission and strategies.

    It's an interesting case study, though, and illustrative for many industries as our economy and technology change many of the ways people accomplish things.

  4. Thanks for thinking and joining in, Steve. That's a fresh and interesting way to look at it. I'm trying to decide whether you're trapped in a narrow definition . . . or right on the money.

    Let's just say there were a string of decisions that led to initiatives, each of which or all of which can usefully viewed as a project or a program. I think you acknowledge that possibility. Anyway, whether the Borders history turns out to have been temporary in comparison to commercial organizations that have lasted a lot longer.

    I find it useful to attempt directing my life more usefully by applying Project Management thinking, planning and execution to it. Trying to overcome the day-to-day living that doesn't seem to produce real progress. We all know life is temporary, although we like to think it won't be short-term.