The average lifespan of a business used to be 40 years. Now it’s 14 years. What’s the secret to longevity? What makes the difference between the flash-in-a-pan and true, lasting success? Charles Handy suggests that all of life can be plotted on a sigmoid curve, like this:
At the beginning of life or any venture there is a period of investment, learning, outlay; this is followed by the first signs of growth and progress; a healthy trajectory is set which continues for a while until there is an inevitable plateau followed by decline and oblivion! The timescale may vary – the Roman Empire lasted 400 years, but ultimately the decline is final. Our own lives too can follow this pattern: education and training, enthusiasm and progress leading to promotion, then we stagnate, start counting the days until retirement and wait for our ultimate decline. Inspiring stuff!
But it doesn’t have to be this way. As far as I’m concerned, the best is always yet to come. But how do we buck the trend? Handy suggests that the secret lies in starting a second curve before the first curve peaks. Leave it too late and it becomes far harder – when decline has already set in and money is tight, reinvesting and having the vision to perceive something new and potentially risky is counter-intuitive. The voice inside our heads says, ‘Not now, consolidate first, get back on an even keel…’
Except, chances are you never will. The visionary company, the one that outlasts and outperforms the competition is looking for what’s next long before the plateau. But that’s hard too: why rock the boat? If it ain’t broke….
So… where are you on the curve? Where’s your business on the curve? Accurately identifying where you are is Step One. Step Two is this: Do you have a clear and vivid picture of where you will be in one year, three years, five years from now? Or is your head down, plumbing away with business as usual? To avoid the plateau we have to be looking upwards, outwards and forwards. We are creatures of habit and so we all have the tendency to keep doing things the same way. The longer we do it the deeper the rut, the harder to get out.
Just exposing yourself to difference is a great way to start: take a different route to work, move things around, talk to new people, collaborate, visit other businesses, start networking again, listen to some TED talks: anything to break your mind out of the norm and create serendipitous moments. Get yourself a vision that has ‘pulling power’.
Step three: commit yourself to change. Lampedusa wrote in The Leopard, “For everything to stay the same, everything must change.” There’s no such thing as stagnating – either you’re moving forward or you’re regressing. Change is here to stay. The ‘good old days’ weren’t that good anyway. The best is yet to come…!