Life Beyond the Sigmoid Curve

The sigmoid curve is the S-shaped curve that has intrigued people throughout history. The curve sums up the story and time line of life itself; we start slowly, we experiment and falter, we then grow rapidly, then wax, and wane. It is the product life cycle, it is the biological life cycle. It describes the rise and fall of empires, dynasties, companies, and individuals. It also describes the course of love and relationships.

A simple concept – determine an appropriate unit of time measurement and where you are now on the curve, and the expected course is clear.

We are however, acutely aware of the need to start a new cycle before the first one falters. We know we have to create or catch the next wave to ensure continued growth and progress.

Catch the next wave!
Create a new wave!

There are unfortunately, (or fortunately) several key issues to contend with today with this concept –

  • The compression of time
  • An accelerated wave frequency
  • The paradox of change.

The compression of time

Life cycles used to take decades to unfold. The time frames today have shrunk dramatically and the accelerating pace of change affects all activities. Traditional milestones and measurements create a time lag where often we can only see the downturn long after it has occurred. Cycle times, especially product development cycle times and the focus on accelerated ‘speed to market’ have dramatically altered the playing field. The accelerating pace of change shrinks every sigmoid curve. The inertia of individuals and organizations also creates a significant lag in reaction and response time. Typically, you are almost never where you think you are on the curve, and almost always much farther along than you would care to acknowledge.

The accelerated wave frequency

The response to accelerated change and the compression of time is a proliferation of the launch of new waves and the resulting dissonance and ever increasing confusion. Which wave are we riding now and which one will take us in our desired direction? The multitude of attempts to create a new wave of differentiation creates a chaos in any market. It may be relatively easy to discriminate between the ‘do something do anything different’ re-packaging of the same ‘stuff’, but what happens when it’s all of great design, great quality, innovative and unique? More chaos and confusion. What gets through? Whatever makes sense and what’s in your face or right on top – right now! The price of admission has gone up in terms of design, service and quality, the pace of execution, and the need to ‘stay on top.’ – the relentless pursuit of truly meaningful differentiation. How do we go beyond to achieve greatness and the spectacular? How do we respond to the incessant acceleration? Perhaps through the ultimate simplicity and utility of design and ‘timelessness’. Perhaps finding the ultimate wave and changing the fundamental nature of the ‘game.’

The paradox of change

The next ‘life’ beyond the curve is that of living the paradox of change. The obvious desired point at which to start a new cycle is before the plateau, where you have the time, energy, and resources to get the new launch through the early stages of exploration and adjustment before the first curve dips downwards. Obvious yes, but not easy. That is precisely the point that all indicators are pointing to continued growth and success. Everything is fine – the formula works – it would be crazy to tamper with proven success.

The problem with change is that the real impetus to change course only happens when the downslide is well underway and you’re looking at a disaster if you continue on the same track. At this point it is unfortunate that any effort to indeed make significant changes will be a formidable challenge. Resources and energy are increasingly depleted as the cycle runs its course downhill. The credibility of leaders is diminished as they are perceived as having led the organization downhill. It is then very understandable that new leaders must be brought in at the top, as being new to the situation they will have the credibility and vision to reorient the business. And the re-orientation must be undertaken, as the cycle has indeed run its course. A mighty re-direction of investment and energy is the imperative even as the traditional core ‘bleeds’ and accelerates downhill. Very tough medicine – so much for the “crazies” earlier call for innovation.

Live in the paradox of change!

Living the paradox requires the foresight to build the future while at the same time maintaining and extending the present – building a new house while continuing to live within the old. The pathway through paradox is managing simultaneous opposites, confusion and chaos – the conflict of the visible success of the old (or current) and the unfelt immediacy of the new and different. Leaders who live beyond the curve gain a shared understanding of the paradox very early in the cycle and actively create the next wave with a clear vision and sense of purpose.

With reference to a discussion of the sigmoid curve in The Age of Paradox, by Charles Handy, Harvard Press, Boston, 1994.