I wrote recently about S-curves (or Sigmoid Curves) as a way of understanding the lifecycle of a technology, and the trajectory of many successful systems. Charles Handy (in The Empty Raincoat) used S-curves as a way to demonstrate the need for significant and regular reinvention and change, and also why disruption often happens just when an existing technology looks like it is performing the best that it ever has. Handy noted that the S-curve describes not only the path of successful technologies, but the trajectory of many successful systems. The duration of specific curves may vary but each one typically begins with an initial period of learning through trial and error, followed by rapid growth, and then a plateauing and ultimately decline in performance.
The 'dilemma zone' (featured in the top graphic) is the point at which the incumbent technology or model is well-optimised but also when newer, potentially disruptive entrants are at their earliest stages and in danger of being underestimated. Many organisations will avoid significant change until crisis is reached or disruption is obvious (Point B), which is often too late. By then, resources may well already be depleted, competitive position already weakened, leadership credibility already damaged, and energy for new or creative thinking drained. Starting the change earlier, at Point A, brings challenges in terms of initiating a period of transition, continuing to optimise the old whilst building the new, and managing different and potentially competing business models, ways of working and/or cultures concurrently. But change needs to start here:
'The challenge of the second curve is to find a way to start that curve while still building upon the success, learning and maturity gained from the first curve. When standing at Point A, one is presented with two confusing and opposing vistas. When one looks back along the sigmoid curve, they see success, growth and satisfaction. But at Point A, one can also look the other direction and see over the horizon of the curve and see the fall towards Point B. The opportunity is to openly look at what Point B tells you, to see the trends that can lead from A to B, but then to use this information to design a pathway from the current Point A, to the Point A on the next sigmoid curve - a pathway of uninterrupted success.'
So continual reinvention, even when things are seemingly going well, is the name of the game. Dave Snowden had a good metaphor for the delicate balancing act of understanding when it's right to focus on the new and stop clinging to the old:
'...it is easier to get in just as the tide turns, you don’t want to be stranded on the beach, but you want to minimise the energy required to get into the blue ocean.'
The second thought about S-curves comes from a review of Charles Handy's more recent book 'The Second Curve' which notes how Handy applies the idea of a second curve in broader contexts, including that of our careers. We should. says Handy, jump to the 'second curve' of our careers, even if it is a scary prospect, before the first one turns downward. I think that in my own career in corporate world I was perhaps guilty of staying too long in one place, so this is a useful way of thinking about it.