Think about your favorite GPS app (e.g., Waze, Apple Maps, Google Maps, etc.).  Now, think about any kind of travel without that app.  It’s almost hard to remember how we used to get around without them!  We’ve become so accustomed to being ‘directed’ on where to turn and how to get to our location of choice, It’s easy to feel lost when we don’t have access to those apps that guide us.

The interesting thing is that, in business, there is no GPS app that will direct you to one of your most critical destinations: the road to the future.  Consider this story shared by Charles Handy, in Chapter 3 of his book the Age of Paradox:

The Road to Davy’s Bar
The Wicklow Mountains lie just outside Dublin in Ireland. It is an area of wild beauty, a place to which, as an Irishman born near there, I return as often as I may.  It is still a bare and lonely place, with unmarked roads, and I still get lost.  Once, I stopped and asked the way.  “Sure, it’s easy,” the local replied. “Just keep going the way you are, straight ahead, and after a while you’ll cross a small bridge with Davy’s Bar on the far side. You can’t miss it!” “Yes, I’ve got that,” I said, “straight on to Davy’s Bar.” “That’s right. Well, half a mile before you get there, turn to your right up the hill.”

It seemed so logical that I thanked him and drove off.  By the time I realized that the logic made no sense, he had disappeared. As I made my way down to Davy’s Bar wondering which of the roads to the right to take, I reflected that he had just given me a vivid example of paradox, perhaps even the paradox of our times: by the time you know where you ought to go, it’s too late to go there; or more dramatically, if you keep on going the way you are, you will miss the road to the future. 

If we superimpose this story into today’s business environment, what is striking is that it’s likely even harder to see the road than ever before – not because it’s not there or it’s moved, but because we are driving so fast!  And, we’ve seen it with every client.  The pace of change that is driving the need to be on the road to the future is also the most likely reason we miss the turn!   So what is the secret to spotting the turn? Being disciplined in “next curve leadership”.

In his research, Handy highlighted that successful organizations grow over time in a series of S-curves (also referred to as Sigmoid Curves and shown in the graphic on the right). Each S-Curve represents a period of growth – from the inception of the curve which is the entrepreneurial phase, through a steady growth phase up through maturity where things start to level out, and ultimately the decline of that growth curve.  He found that the “secret to constant growth is to start a new Sigmoid curve before the first one peters out.”  And that is the essence of next curve leadership, being attentive to the need for and intentional about starting a new growth curve before the point of maturity and decline of your current growth curve. 

This intentionality and attentiveness is demonstrated by four critical actions related to next curve leadership. A next curve leader:

  • Anticipates the need to build a new future.  As illustrated in the story, one of the hardest decisions is when to turn or, said differently, when to jumpstart the next curve. Because the ideal time to start a new curve is when you are highly successful in your current curve, it can be difficult to generate the energy to entertain the need for future change.  To mitigate this energy challenge, next curve leaders adopt a discipline of prompting growth curve discussions at least annually, assessing where the organization is, and imagining future impacts and possibilities.
  • Engages in foresight.  Engaging in foresight means looking ahead, trying to peer into the future to see how you might shape it and what new competitive space you might create.  Foresight activities include scanning the horizon for trends or signals of changes in technology, demographics, lifestyles, the socio-economic environment, regulations, or other areas relevant to your industry. Foresight is not about “predicting” the future, but rather it is about possibilities and opportunity spotting, and it can be a powerful informer of future vision. 
  • Engages the next generation of leaders in shaping the future. A next curve leader recognizes the need to fuel the future while maintaining the present and that the next phase of growth will require a new generation of leadership.  Thus, they involve the next gen leaders as active participants in bringing ideas, energy, and insights into future possibilities. They give them permission to take ownership and shape the next curve. And, they support and facilitate the changes needed to get there, often by removing barriers and/or getting out of the way.
  • Creates an appetite for discovery.  In seeking out the best path or pathways for new growth, there comes a natural need for discovery and experimentation of ideas.  A next curve leader establishes a culture in which “trying stuff” is valued, exploration and testing are expected, and a risk of failure is accepted.  Most importantly, the leader supports learning and an openness to re-imagining or re-inventing the company, services, and/or products for the future and long-term sustainability.

As you think about your organization and your own leadership, critical questions you might ask yourself and your next generation of leaders include:

  1. Where are we on our current growth curve? Are we in the midst of steady continuous growth or are we reaching a point of maturity with this period of growth?
  2. What are the signals we are seeing in the market that are affecting our customers or our employees, or that could impact or re-shape how or what we deliver?
  3. Are there demographic, technological, regulatory, or socio-economic forces that will shape or change the business we are in?
  4. What steps should we take to start or further engage in next curve thinking?

In considering your organization’s growth journey, remember this:  Engaging in discussions of the next growth curve doesn’t mean you are dismissing your current period of success.  That growth should be celebrated, and steps taken by leadership to sustain it as long as possible.  However, to ensure the ongoing success of the organization, next curve leadership is also essential.  For it is only when the present and the future are cultivated simultaneously that the organization can reach its true potential and successfully navigate the road to the future.