Charles Handy quotes an old joke about a stranger asking directions in rural Ireland. Stopping a passer-by in the street, the visitor describes his intended destination and is met with a puzzled look. ‘If that’s where you want to be, I wouldn’t start from here’, the local replies.
Funny, yes, but a metaphor Handy uses as an introduction to the Sigmoid curve – the idea that all life-cycles grow and decline in an ‘s’ shaped curve. Starting the next business or product at the point in the curve when resources and energy are abundant, is the right time to introduce change because the turmoil and distraction of re-organising can kill you if you get it wrong. Too soon and the organisation is over committed to the current plan; too late and the brightest have left while the shareholders milk the business instead of investing in it. The start point for change really matters.
This popped into my head on a flight home from China a couple of weeks ago. You don’t have to visit to know the country’s a twenty-first century Klondike – equal parts scary and exhilarating – but visiting doesn’t half bring it home. It’s easy to be wowed by the bright lights and potential you can almost touch in the street but the wise would be those that wonder how far up the left hand side of the Sigmoid curve their organisation is and what they can do now to identify the right step-off point to start the next curve. I’ve made a point of visiting as many other businesses as I can on every trip so far and we all seem to be struggling to manage the same things. Good people are scarce and organisations aren’t mature enough to do anything other than execute the current plan while the market gallops beneath them like an unbroken horse. I wonder every time whether we aren’t all missing an opportunity to solve a problem we work with every day with mature organisations: reorganising businesses and the individuals in them is so much harder than starting from scratch. Instead of deploying the existing organisational model and facing the fights with the Sigmoid curve when it comes, the truly innovative would be looking for something unique but the clamour of the opportunity makes that so much easier to say than it is to do.
In a twist to Handy’s story, I’d tell the addicted smoker the easiest time to give up is before they light their first roll-up. I don’t know what the answer is but I wonder if we’re not passing some of our more unhelpful organisational addictions on to China when we had the chance to be so much more thoughtful.