The world keeps changing. It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and ways which got you there are seldom those things that keep you there. – Charles Handy
COVID-19 caused organizations to adapt to a changing world. Many failed to adapt, ending up closing their doors. Others that did adapt, were better equipped to weather the storm and grow.
Early glass factories were harsh environments to work in. In one job, a worker transferring glassware with a tongs in each hand, picked up two glasses at a time from a conveyor, rotated 90 degrees, and loaded the glasses into vacuum cups of a continuously rotating machine. An efficient worker might load 30 to 40 glasses a minute. The job was physically demanding in an environment that could reach temperatures above 120 in the summer. A person doing this task could only work for 15 minutes at a time before he became fatigued and dropping glasses. Four people took turns to transfer glasses over one-hour periods during an eight hour shift.
My grandfather, an engineer who had worked for several glass manufacturers, saw a solution to the loading problem. He patented the UAL robotic glass loader that picked a glass from a conveyor and loaded onto another machine. He founded The Eldred Company to build loaders. The UAL Loader that replaced humans could transfer 60 glasses a minute without getting tired.
Over the years The Eldred Company developed addition machines including glassware decorating machines for Corning and Anchor-Hocking. My father took over Eldred and continued to improve existing machines.
When I joined Eldred as engineering manager, the business had peaked and was struggling. My father knew something was wrong, but he was not equipped to deal with the problem.
He allowed me to upgrade Eldred’s operational systems, products, and marketing. I took over after he retired. I was able to extend the company's life for a decade before I acknowledged the end was near. Eldred was fighting a losing battle against an Italian machine manufacturer that adapted new technology improving the machine's efficiency. Eldred and myself were slow to embrace the change. I made the difficult decision to license Eldred’s technology and close the doors after 55 years.
Change happens to all organizations. An organization’s life cycle is difficult to predict. Changing technology, culture, politics, people, and black swan events can blindside leaders. By the time you understand where you ought to go, it’s too late to go there. Or more problematically, if you keep going on your current path, you miss the road to the future.
We are often slow to adapt. Paradox confuses us because things don't behave the way we expect them to behave. What worked well last time is not guaranteed to work as well the next time. We fool ourselves into thinking we can look backward, see the past, and then accurately predict the future.
The sigmoid curve sums up the story of our organization. We start slowly taking two steps forward and one step back. We learn and experiment. The organization begins to grow. Without change, the organization peaks and begins its decline toward the end.
When Eldred began, it experimented & learned with its new loader.
The loader was a success and Eldred grew.
Eldred introduced a new machine or improved an existing one, there was a transformation to a new curve.
Initially, there was a learning period along with some confusion before new growth began.
Eldred declined when it was too slow to adapt its machine design using new technology.
In an ideal world, an organization offers a new product, new strategy, adds new technology, changes the culture, or brings in new people to build the second curve (or third or fourth).
The Shaded Area Between the Curves is a time of learning and confusion. Charles Handy in Age of Paradox perceived that many institutions struggle in the shaded portions of curve where there is confusion, uncertainty, and fear.
What was once obvious to leading an organization is now confusing. A leader thinks she knows how to run the organization, but today’s organization doesn’t resemble the one she knew.
Things changed. She lives with the paradox of keeping the first curve going as she learns to understand what is happening. The discipline of adding the second curve forces leaders to challenge the assumptions of the first curve.
During times of change the second curve keeps one skeptical, curious and inventive. It offers a way to cope with the contradictions during the transition period.
The secret to constant growth is to start the next curve before the existing one ends. My grandfather was always looking opportunities. If you are too emotionally attached to the past, it is difficult to move forward. My father held on to the past. When something no longer works, stop putting resources toward it. Me? I am a combination of both men.
Change is happening!
How are you adapting?
Where is your organization on the sigmoid curve?
What opportunities do you see to create the next curve?
What do you need to stop doing?
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