Jumping Curves

In our Strategic Doing trainings and in the book, one of the core concepts is the idea of “jumping curves.” Individual organisms, technologies, and economies all obey the principle of the S-Curve: slow beginnings, faster growth in the middle, then a plateau phase at the top followed by an inevitable decline. We model technologies and economies with multiple S-Curves, as one “era” is followed by another. Some companies are adept at jumping curves – moving to the next curve as one starts on the downward slope: IBM started as a producer of punch-card systems, then mainframes, then personal computers – and now, they’re betting big on artificial intelligence (AI).

We see the same phenomenon in communities and regions: they may have started out agriculture-focused, followed by heavy industry in the middle decades of the 20th century. Now, those industries are rapidly being replaced as a new era based on digital technology continues to pick up steam.  

One of the most important and difficult truths from the S-Curve lens is that decline is inevitable. Jumping curves is the only alternative.

While this description feels fairly intuitive and straightforward from 60,000 feet, on the ground it is anything but…particularly in the midst of the transition. It’s not just macro economies that have to shift: communities, if they want to thrive, are (sooner or later) faced with the challenge of jumping curves. And communities, of course, are made up of people – many people. How do they get onto that new curve, rather than staying on the old one as it declines? Cleveland State University’s Bob Gleeson recently joined us for a Third Thursday program reflecting on Strategic Doing in urban settings. Bob’s newsletter, The Urban Lens, always has plenty of food for thought, and a recent issue explains this conundrum much better than I’ve been able to:

Today, the speed of societal change in such systems has become mind-boggling.  Rapid advancements in technology, particularly in the fields of information technology, communication, and transportation, have significantly accelerated the pace of societal change. The advent of the internet, mobile devices, and social media, together with artificial intelligence and other digital technologies have revolutionized how people connect, access information, and conduct business. These and related technological innovations have not only transformed industries but have also re-shaped social interactions, cultural practices, economic systems and institutions, leading to yet-ever-faster rates of societal change. The experience of these rates of change make it exceedingly difficult for some people to meet their needs for continuity and coherence in their lives.

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These changes create the kind of adaptive challenges that Strategic Doing is designed for. Ron Heifetz points out that adaptive challenges have a critical quality in common: part of what needs to be grappled with is people’s beliefs, values and/or perspectives. If (as Bob says) people want coherence and continuity, rolling out a communications plan to tell people the features of a new technology (that new curve) isn’t going to get them on board. That’s more likely to create mistrust or outright opposition.

So what can a company, community, organization or region do instead? As in all the work we do at the Lab, it comes down to conversations. Not standing-in-a-line-for-coffee conversations, but guided conversations in an atmosphere in which people come to trust one another. They begin exchanging their fear with the courage to dare to dream. Maybe not everyone will be willing to do that work, and some may stand on the sidelines to see what’s happening before they join in. Some might have a lot invested in the old curve (financially or emotionally) and will fight the change with everything they have. But one of the most important and difficult truths from the S-Curve lens is that decline is inevitable. Jumping curves is the only alternative.

Leading these kinds of conversations involves a set of skills that most of us didn’t pick up in our jobs, but they can be learned. That’s what our trainings are all about. In other situations, we have the privilege of helping leaders launch the first conversations. If you’re faced with needing to help a group jump to its next curve, reach out for – of course – a conversation.