It’s that time of year when you plant bulbs if you wish to enjoy their flowers in the spring. Not all bulbs will make it; some may fall prey to insects, while others succumb to harsh conditions. To mitigate the inevitable, a savvy gardener plants enough bulbs to ensure adequate coverage and diversifies their crop should one variety fail to deliver. Regardless of the best strategies, we must experience a winter to enjoy a spring.
“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.” — Rachel Carson
These words by Rachel Carson encapsulate the essence of life’s natural cycles, which resonate not only in the realm of nature but also in the dynamic landscape of business. While the season metaphor works for all aspects of the business world, from career to industry, we will focus on the organisation for this Thursday’s Thought.
Those familiar with my writing will know I use the S curve to illustrate the life cycle of various phenomena, including product adoption, technology evolution, and organisational growth. The S curve works for seasons, too, as explained by Theodore Modis on The Innovation Show.
“Every New Beginning Comes From Some Other Beginning’s End”. — Seneca
While beginning this metaphor in Spring is tempting, most new ideas start in winter. The phrase “winter of our discontent” is a famous line from William Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”. The term expresses a period of unhappiness, turmoil, or adversity. When an organisation is entrenched in a fixed set of beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, habits, or identities, it becomes trapped in winter. Most organisations usually wait until they are in the depths of winter to take action, generally because it is the only way to survive.
Because most organisations get stuck in the busyness of the present, they neglect to plant saplings of new business models or products in Autumn/Fall or late Summer. We get preoccupied with “making hay when the sun shines” and neglect to invest in the future. The consultant is so busy delivering work that she stops developing the business for the next season. The organisation is so busy fulfilling products that it stops innovating for the future. The individual is so busy working that he neglects his family until he retires. By then, it is all too late. It is hard to plant saplings in the frozen ground of winter.
The Decline of the Old Precedes the Growth of the New
“Winter is not only the time when the old dies; it is also in winter that the new is conceived.” — Theodore Modis
Natural growth processes cannot continue indefinitely. Land must be left fallow. The golden goose needs a break. Organisations often exhaust market needs, typically waiting until there is unmistakable evidence that their product is no longer in demand before embarking on innovation. Experienced executives, like savvy gardeners, understand that a dip in revenue during winter is natural and inevitable. This dip significantly triggers new growth. The lesson for business executives facing major transitions is not to underestimate the impact of the dip but to plan for and anticipate a low-growth period.
“Different pieces of technology kind of go in cycles. They have their springs and summers and autumns, and then they, you know, go to the graveyard of technology. And, so we try to pick the things that are in their springs.”- Steve Jobs
Consider Adobe’s remarkable spring from a well-architected fall. In the strategic manoeuvre resembling preparing for winter by stepping back to take two steps forward, Adobe, renowned for software tools like Photoshop and Adobe Reader, demonstrated insightful leadership under President and CEO Shantanu Narayen. Recognising a looming winter in the digital landscape during the early 2000s, Narayen observed the nascent emergence of cloud computing, a technology not yet widely adopted.
Anticipating the potential spring and summer of cloud computing, Narayen envisioned shifting away from Adobe’s traditional software licensing model towards a subscription-based, cloud-centric approach. Understanding the imminent clash between the existing business model and the evolving digital landscape, Narayen embarked on a journey to reposition Adobe for a new season of growth.
However, this strategic shift to the cloud would temporarily impact total revenue and the bottom line as significant investments were made in developing new programming capabilities. Moreover, this transformation risked unsettling those who basked in the Summer sun of success: the leadership team members, the board, Wall Street analysts and the customer base.
Despite these challenges, Narayen decided to act swiftly, positioning Adobe ahead of industrywide shifts towards cloud computing. This proactive move to plant saplings in late summer involved convincing the team of the urgency to adapt, as waiting for a massive industry during winter was deemed treacherous. The decision came with short-term sacrifices, including a temporary shrinkage in total revenue and potential stakeholder apprehension.
As Adobe released its cloud-based products, the market responded more positively than expected. Being at the forefront allowed Adobe to acquire smaller companies with the needed capabilities before their prices escalated. Investors recognised the foresight in this offensive move and rewarded Adobe for its strategic shift. Adobe’s bravery positioned them as industry leaders, showcasing the wisdom of taking calculated steps backwards to leap forward. By weathering the storm and persistently investing in innovation, Adobe emerged on the other side with a spectacular summer. Their subscription-based model flourished, leading to consistent and robust growth. The dip they experienced, which may have appeared chaotic, ultimately led to order, profitability, and long-term sustainability.
THANKS FOR READING
For more on the season metaphor and a masterclass in S curves, join us for the finale of our series with Theodore Modis.
Is Your Business In “S”eason? Harvest Lessons from Adobe was originally published in The Thursday Thought on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.