“We cannot rest and sit down lest we rust and decay. Health is maintained only through work. And as it is with all life so it is with science. We are always struggling from the relative to the absolute.” — Max Planck
A study focusing on the health of individuals over 65 found that those who regularly opted for stairs over elevators or escalators enjoyed better health and agility. Climbing stairs, beyond being an excellent cardio workout, played a crucial role in preserving muscle mass, and ensuring robustness in old age. Choosing the escalator denies the opportunity to maintain and build essential muscles for the future — a parallel to relying on consultants to develop your strategy in the business world. To thrive, organisations must maintain and develop their change muscle. Use consultants by all means, but as a gym instructor, not to do the training for you. Importantly, you must do this work before it is necessary. The best time to build muscle is when you are in good health. As the Spartan mantra proclaims, “The more you sweat in times of peace, the less you bleed in war.”
Ageing is inevitable, but just as we influence human ageing through lifestyle choices, leaders can significantly impact their organisations. As leaders, navigating change and adapting to new circumstances offer opportunities for regular renewal. Opting for the stairs is a small decision that holds significant long-term benefits, akin to investing in health. Similarly, organisations benefit from investing time, energy, and resources today to build a robust and resilient tomorrow. In both life and business, sustained and consistent efforts yield the most significant results.
A Staircase to Sustainable Success
“Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small.” — Confucius
In the exploration of growth strategies “Staircases to Growth”, a great friend of The Innovation Show, Charles Conn, Patagonia Chairman, and his co-authors delved into the approaches of 40 leading global growth companies. Reflecting on their achievements, these companies recognised a distinctive pattern — a “footprint” resembling a staircase of manageable steps.
While few — if any — single steps were dramatic in and of themselves, linking them together as a staircase of sequential growth achieved results that were. None of these companies had perfect foresight of where the steps would lead. However, they confirmed that each “step” institutionalised new capabilities, forged business options, and built the change muscle that seemed unattainable from the base of the staircase. It was only through walking the stairs, that they built new capabilities.
In “The Imperfectionists: Strategic Mindsets for Uncertain Times”, Charles Conn and Robert McLean use staircases as a strategic architecture that embodies three crucial elements: stretch, momentum, and flexibility. This is a diagram from the book.
Stretch: This represents the “capability distance” of stepping out from the established skills platform, encompassing the complexity of new capabilities sought in a step-out and the degree of integration required.
Momentum: This refers to the positive impact of early successes, often rooted in incremental moves, on the organisation’s learning and confidence.
Flexibility: This entails being adaptable and maintaining option value, especially in times of high uncertainty. Strategies for flexibility may involve running multiple strategies concurrently, opting for low-consequence choices, and steering clear of significant sunk-cost options.
To illustrate staircases in action, Charles and his co-author Rob McLean use the example of Amazon’s 15-year expansion into the world of consumer and merchant financial services. When examining Amazon’s ventures, extending beyond their core business to include areas like Amazon Web Services, consumer financial services, and recent forays into healthcare, conventional strategic frameworks are somewhat defunct. It’s not a matter of adhering to a meticulously planned strategy from a business school textbook. Amazon doesn’t rely on a perfect strategy in a rapidly changing world. Instead of crafting a flawless plan, they set audacious goals and embark on parallel steps up the staircase. Each of these steps contributes to a deeper understanding of the evolving landscape, aids in skill development, and sometimes results in acquiring assets like intellectual property or smaller companies. Essentially, they bootstrap themselves toward their ambitious objectives.
How organisations transition from an existing business destined to age to a new one is akin to building physical capabilities in your 40s for use in your 80s and beyond. There is no escaping the work, there is no magic pill.
“What matters most to long-term performance is not so much what you do to reach the top — though that is certainly important — but what you do to cross over to the bottom of the next S-curve and begin the climb again.” — Paul Nunes
A case I love to share is that of Intel Corporation. The company underwent a remarkable transformation by shifting from a memory chip manufacturer to a pioneer and producer of microprocessors. Faced with the ageing threat of competition from low-cost Asian rivals, Intel strategically navigated this challenge by placing small, incremental bets on microprocessors. Production managers at Intel redirected production from memory chips to microprocessors, responding to the increasing profitability and demand. It wasn’t until microprocessor production constituted 90% of Intel’s output that the management officially recognised Intel as a manufacturer of microprocessors. Just like a staircase model, high-performing companies not only enjoy profits today but invest consistent energy in the future.
When you have the choice to take the stairs do it. A day will come when we will struggle to perform a basic task that we once took for granted. By maintaining that skill when we can physically perform it, we will extend not only our lifespan but our healthspan too.
In the spirit of this article and the increased need for fitness in a knowledge economy, the first episode of the Innovation Show for 2024 is on healthspan. I have been performing the “Built From Broken” programme for a year now and it is akin to the staircase model for the body. Check out this episode of The Innovation Show with Scott Hogan, founder of SaltWrap.
Take the Staircase, Not The Escalator: Life Span and Health Span was originally published in The Thursday Thought on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.