Friday, June 5, 2009

The Sigmoid Curve and the Paradox of Change

I love Charles Handy’s work (e.g. The Age of Paradox). In earlier blog posts I have shared his thoughts about sensible organizational behavior and his wonderful story about The Road to Davey’s Bar, which is a parable of change. His thinking on the sigmoid curve is burned in my brain, and I promised I would share it with you, so here goes.

The sigmoid curve – or S-curve – is really about the nature of change in general. The s-curve is often used to illustrate how change affects technology or product life cycles, but I think it applies to any system where we are interested in performance over time, including our own personal performance or career progression.

Things start slow in the beginning. For a while it may even seem like we made a bad decision or started down the wrong path. Then at point A, things start to take off. From point A to point B is a period of accelerating growth and performance. But at point B, we begin to experience the asymptotic limits to growth. And by point C, we experience the pain of inevitable decline. If we wait until point C or even point B to realize that what we are doing will no longer work, we face tremendous hardship and competitive peril.

Luckily, there is life beyond the curve. The secret to constant growth is to
start a new sigmoid curve before the first one peters out. The right place to
start that second curve is at a point where there is time, as well as the
resources and energy, to get the new curve through its initial explorations and
floundering before the first curve begins to dip downward (p.51)

But there is paradox of change here. The paradox is that at the point where we NEED to be changing and switching to the technology or routines that will take us to the future, all the messages from our environment are sending us the exact OPPOSITE message – look how great we are, folks can’t get enough of what we are doing, there is no end in sight!

Our task as leaders is to not only sense the need for the second curve, but also to get others to share our understanding of the need for change and to develop a sense of urgency for a radically different future when people still want to revel in the success and comfort of the present.

As leaders, “the discipline of the second curve requires that we always assume that we are near the peak of the first curve and should therefore be starting to prepare for the second” (p.57).
The paradox of success, that what got you where you are won’t keep you where you are, is a hard lesson to learn. Curvilinear logic means starting life over again, something that gets harder as one gets older. Therefore, it is often better, in organizations, to entrust the curvilinear thinking to the next generation. It can see more clearly where the first curve is heading and what the next curve might look like. It is the job of the elders to give that cohort permission to be different, and then, when the next curve is established, to get out of the way. (p.60).
Will you lead change and take the folks you have been given the privilege to lead where they need to go? Or will change drag you around by the nose to uncomfortable and potentially perilous places? You must be able to successfully lead yourself through change and overcome it's paradox if you want to have any hope of leading others through change.

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