Most companies, yours included no doubt, make things up as they go along.
In general, unpretty as it is, this is no bad thing. By behaving haphazardly and reactively you are also behaving experimentally: trying various things out, some of which will fit, and some of which won’t. If the ratio of hits to misses is high enough, then you’ll grow.
For the majority, such a way of existing will continue indefinitely. A business can quite happily live experimentally for 10, 20, even 50 years. However such an existence is tiring. You will spend much of your time spinning your wheels; only occasionally getting traction and lurching forward; expending high energy for meagre reward.
Far preferable to this is to behave in a focused and proactive manner: where you know what works, and can execute on it cleanly and consistently.
However very few businesses ever reach this state.
This is because they never pass through all three stages of what I call the “Strategic Lifecycle”.
The stages of the lifecycle are as follows:
The way they work is, I think, pretty self explanatory, however here’s a quick overview:
As described above, the experimentation period is where you’re finding your feet in the market – trying various different things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and learning as you go.
No matter how well thought through a business plan is, all companies must pass through the experimentation period (or more likely get stuck in it), because you never know how the market will interpret you.
Key attributes for a good experimentation period include:
- Being maximally active (the more action, movement, and volatility, the more likely you find what works)
- Being open minded (don’t let your initial assumptions lead you too much)
The consolidation period is where you pause, step back, and analyse your learnings from the experimentation period in order to figure out exactly what it is your business is for.
What is its role in the market?
Where does it add value?
What you’ll find is that the role of your business isn’t what you initially intended it to be. It will instead be where it has gravitated naturally: the sum of the experiments you did that worked, and a rejection of the ones that didn’t.
In a way this is the point your business “grows up” – assuming you ever allow it to get there.
Key attributes for a successful consolidation period are:
- Actually bothering to do it (most never even try)
- Being able to see the wood for the trees (ignore the day to day for a while)
- Simplification (you’re trying to boil your company down to its essential nature, so it should become more basic, not more complex)
Having realised what your business is for, and what the world wants from it, you can subsequently stop being so experimental, and start executing on it deliberately.
You can now be much more focused and proactive, and start to build space between you and the other brands in your category.
This might require a rebrand, a change to your channel strategy, cutting some products from your range, adding others, tweaking your culture – it could be anything. You’ll only know when the direction becomes clear.
The key attributes for successful acceleration are:
- Focus (so everything works together in concert, and becomes more than the sum of its parts)
- Aggression (as per my recent piece: in order to hit the mark, you have to overshoot)
So that’s the strategic lifecycle.
Why do most companies never leave the experimentation period?
Well, bizarrely, unless they’re unusually switched on it’s because they never have a crisis. They never have a “break point” in their day to day operations which allows or encourages them to step back and analyse.
It never fails to amaze me how much business owners (including myself) are blind to the “big picture” – and in order to cure that blindness you have no choice but to remove yourself from the action, or be forcibly removed by something bad happening.
That’s why often such a break point emerges with a major setback. You get thrown into a sort of “existential crisis” which provokes reflection (i.e. consolidation).
My advice to you? Don’t wait for a break point.
Be aware of these phases and pass through them deliberately. Don’t wait to be pushed.
And if you find yourself at a break point? Then see it for what it is: an opportunity to learn and reflect, and be reborn as an intensified version of yourself.