Last week we spoke about S-curves, the underlying lifecycle of all innovations, and how important it is to manage transitions from one S-curve to another.
Explained in terms of curves, it sounds so easy. But it isn’t. Every curve represents something - a project, a venture, a dream, a team of people - that we have loved, cared for, poured our life into. And when these things change, we have to change too - and that is not easy.
When I sold my first company, it felt like a death. I knew in my head that it was the right time to sell, the right time to move on, the right time to start something new. But for my heart it was a time of sadness and desolation to leave behind the venture I had lovingly nurtured for sixteen years.
Our lives are filled with many waves of change. Families, careers, projects, relationships, dreams also all change. And so this week I want to shift from technology to talking about managing personal change using the Four Room Apartment model of change.
The four room apartment
Whenever we move through change it is like moving through four rooms in an apartment:
We start in an OK room where everything is fine (we’re still in the “summer” of a successful s-curve). But then, a product begins to die, or our venture loses steam, or a relationship fails… - and we are thrust into the second room.
This is the room of Denial. We will spend time here trying to deny that something has ended - and trying to get back into the first room, back to how things used to be.
Eventually we will accept that it is over and move forward into the Confusion room. This is the space where nothing makes sense. We have left the old behind, and cannot yet see the new. All is misty and uncertain and often fearful as we grasp for a new way forward.
Finally, by finding a new beginning, a new path (a new s-curve), we enter the Growth and Renewal room - and the cycle of life and new growth begins over again.
Mistakes on the way
We all spend too much time in the Denial room. In my work with companies I often find people who are so proud of a product they have developed that they cannot accept that it is too little or too late for the current marketplace. And in my lay work counselling people there are people still holding onto something when “even a fool would let go”, to quote an old Joe Cocker song.
I have spent a lot of time running divorce workshops for children. Children also spend a lot of time after a divorce retreating to ‘magical thinking’ that their parents will get back together (even after they’re remarried) which keeps them from moving forward and adjusting to their new life. On some workshops we ask the children to draw their ‘old family’ on a stone and then take them to throw their stones into the sea. Wrenching and sad yes, but also a part of grieving, closing a chapter, and moving on.
In a similar vein, I’ve sometimes suggested to companies I mentor that they have some sort of ceremony of closure to mark the end of a product or project or team.
Once we have moved on from denial, we are still at risk - of moving through the Confusion room too fast - to get to the next relationship (does the word “rebound” ring a bell?), to the next job, to the next product. It takes real strength to stay in the painful space of uncertainty, with nothing to hang onto, but it is worth it - rushing through this phase will only take us into something new that is not right for us.
When we first started Fundamo, I was in charge of developing the business plan and strategy while my partner Hannes focused on building the key relationships we needed with big players. I had an interdisciplinary team of twelve people including leading consultants working with me in a windowless training room below Sanlam’s headquarters. We developed a plan, a product architecture and a strategy - and then I tore it up, and we started over - and over, and over and over. We spent three months underground in our “Confusion room”, and I refused to let the team leave (one person resigned halfway) until I knew we had built a rock-solid foundation for Fundamo. It was time well spent - that seed grew into a mighty tree!
I hope these insights will help you to surf the waves of change...
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all the best, Neil