It’s said that men tend to have a linear view of progress whereas women’s view is cyclical. And, perhaps there are obvious reasons for this which are beyond the scope of this paper. However, it is interesting to look at these two views in the context of change in a business. A purely linear view of the development of a business risks losing the benefits a cyclical view brings, whilst a wholly cyclical view risks missing out some important features.
By a cyclical view, I mean a model of progress which sees it as repeatedly going though the four stages of renewal, growth, maturity and decline. There are many examples of this in nature from the phases of the moon to the seasons of the year. If I associate winter with renewal, it is in the sense of laying the foundations for the coming spring. Many plants need a fully cold period if they are to grow properly the following year.
When I work with small businesses, I use the standard model of ‘start up’-‘growth’-‘advanced growth’ to illustrate that different approaches are needed in the three stages. It is all too easy for businesses to fail to make the transition from growth to maturity successfully and slide into decline more or less inevitably. So matching the cyclical model above onto the four stages of business – ‘start up’-‘growth’-‘advanced growth’-‘decline’ – would seem to be a useful way to go.
What does it mean and how is it useful? The first thing to note, if you take a large business, say Marks and Spencer, is that there are zillions of instances of this pattern going on simultaneously. Each product sold is on such a cycle, each store is, each employee is, and so on. Not only that but there are cycles within cycles: a product may be renewed and relaunched, an employee may be promoted or moved, a store may have an extension. And, as a retailer, even today, the business is governed by repeated seasonal cycles: pyjamas in autumn, turkeys at Christmas, swimwear in spring, salads in summer. Is it possible to see a huge, unfinished cycle, so far lasting 125 years, arching over the entire business since its inception until now?
The idea of cycles within cycles is the idea to latch on to, rather than the repeated seasonal cycle. I advocate creating small cycles within the bigger cyclical stages of ‘start up’, ‘growth’ and so on. In this way the process of renewal can be regularly and repeatedly revisited.
Many businesses are in ‘start up’ for over a year and, quite rightly, are focussing on getting clients more than anything else. In ‘growth’, the emphasis is on servicing clients well and building pipeline. In either stage, too often attention is very short term and sight is lost of the need to look ahead. Attention is focussed on tactics, not strategy. Regular periods of renewal are strategic activities. They will encourage new growth, whilst focussing attention on what the business is all about. They can revitalise people and guard against complacency, missed opportunities and bad habits.
One way of ensuring that the business regularly goes through a stage of renewal is to plan for it – to deliberately set off mini-cycles within larger ones. In ‘start up’, this might be a less formal process than it would be in businesses in the ‘growth’ stage, where it can (should) be built in to the five year plan. Depending on the nature of the business and what the owners want to do with, renewal sessions could be as frequent as quarterly or as infrequent as annually. In the absence of a need to cater for natural spurs to renewal – new staff, new products and services, major new clients – there’s no reason not to go ahead and have one anyway.