What Season is Your Company In?

In this week’s CBS Moneywatch blog, I suggest that Apple is in autumn and about to enter its winter period. The question is: what season is your company in, and what do you do once you know?

The idea that companies go through cycles is nothing new. Politicians and writers noted the same thing about countries. Old people, like me, will remember Ronald Reagan’s famous reelection campaign slogan “It’s Morning Again in America.” Literature majors will remember, “The Winter of Our Discontent,” from Shakespeare and later, John Steinbeck.

While I’m not the first to identify that companies have seasons, I believe this approach has been under appreciated, under developed and under applied. My goal for this blog post is to get more people thinking this way, and for leaders to stop making the same mistake that Apple’s Tim Cook is making: looking to extend the autumn harvest rather than moving to a new spring.

In the new book I’m working on, a great business is created when people identify an “outrage”: a situation in the world that violates people’s deepest core values. After what may be a long time of talking and planning, people become passionate. Passion means more than enthusiasm and acting like the stereotypical tech startup culture. “Passion” has Christian roots (i.e., “Christ’s passion on the cross”), and it means suffering, as well as the expectation of a glorious future. When leaders and followers decide to pay the price required to end the outrage in the world, spring has officially ended the cold winter. Outrages strong enough to end winter included the artistic train wreck of network TV (HBO, as it moved into programming like The Sopranos), the dehumanizing and ugly technology in the world (Apple, in 1997), or the industrialization of the food supply (Whole Foods). 

It’s not enough to be outraged and then go back to work. Real spring means people are willing to do what’s required to end the outrage that is violating their core values. Their work will result in future profits, high margins, and a great culture. 

Spring is marked by high vitality (a feeling of being alive) and often an almost total lack of organization, as people find new ways of getting work done.

Summer begins as the company finds how to organize itself to close the gap between reality and its vision of a world free of the outrage. Its measurable progress picks up. Lessons learned are formalized into systems, and people in the company feel they are on a roll. Summer has high vitality and solid organization. 

Summer is marked by bursts of brilliance, in which tribes use their assets to release new products or services that make innovation appear effortless. It’s during summer that companies get the attention of the popular business press. Phrases like “legendary company” are used to describe an organization that seems built to blaze. The problem is that many business books focus on how to get to summer. Actually, the goal is getting to spring. Summer follows spring, unless leaders abort the process of renewal.

Unfortunately, some people identify summer companies as “built to last.” It’s fairer to say that spring and summer companies are “built to blaze,” while what follows is a period when the companies are “built to decline.”

Summer ends when the focus shifts to harvesting the bounty. Autumn is the time of peak results. It’s a result of bursts of brilliance from summer, which were a result of the passion from spring. Autumn usually focuses on speed, efficiency, and maximizing return to investors. Many start-ups try to get to the fall harvest as a time to be acquired, when their P&L looks the best. Not surprisingly, many buyers find they’ve bought a company whose best days are behind them.

Declining passion and increasing structure in the organization mark autumn. Management consultants love companies in their autumn, because it’s a time when slowing ROI almost guarantees a contract. Unfortunately, the focus on “tightening up” puts downward pressure on the passion that led to the company’s greatness. 

Winter begins when the bounty of autumn is over. There are still sales to make and updates to release (in the case of a tech company). The days are cold. Innovation is almost non-existent. Many companies in winter try to shake the trees (clients) that were so eager to drop their fruit in autumn, only to find there is no more fruit. 

Winter serves a purpose. It’s a time of reflection, of gathering energy for the coming spring. It’s a fallow period, when people find their personal energy has ebbed. Winter is a great time to do leadership development, which could hasten the coming spring. Unfortunately, winter companies are usually so focused on cost containment, that they extend their winter, sometimes past their point of viability.

Winter may not end. Said more specifically, companies may not survive winter. Many that do survive adopt a scarcity mentality and make do with what little is available. They focus on getting a greater share of declining markets.  

Not all companies can survive a winter. Those that do usually see winter end with a crisis, which is a realization that the world has more outrages than the original one that propelled their past success. When leaders begin to get mad at the state of things, and reject the status quo, and others really believe that change is in the air, the days begin to get longer, and slowly, a bit warmer. 

The end-of-winter crisis is marked by disorganization, as people realize that their current processes aren’t working anymore. Product lines are abandoned. Systems are left unattended. The crisis is a period of extreme uncertainty, and the survival of the company is on the line.

It is in this crisis—this organizational “crucible” (thank you, Warren Bennis)—that a new spring has the potential of emerging. 

Which takes me back to the question in the title: what season is your business in?  Without something highly unusual happening (like extreme disruptions in markets), a company in one season can only move forward, or try to extend the season its in for a bit longer.

Here are four actions you can take:

  1. Identify the season of your company. 
  2. Maximize what is supposed to happen in that season. Spring requires time for the outrage to become clear, and for people to say they are willing to pay the price of ending it. Summer needs to turn the company passion into products and services that close the gap between reality and the company’s vision. Autumn needs to complete the harvest. Winter requires reflection, and to realize that a new spring will honor what made the company great before (its core values), but everything else (products, services, system, and culture) will likely change.
  3. When the market signals a season is drawing to a close, don’t delude yourself. When it’s required, move quickly to the next season, and make sure you are among the first to realize the next season is upon you. In CBS MoneyWatch, I was critical of Apple for not realizing that they are in autumn, and perhaps going into winter.
  4. Know which seasons are great ones for you, as a person. Some leaders are made for summer, and a lot of companies are in summer seasons right now. (Company seasons can last for years.) Others are built for the management-intense focus of autumn. At CultureSync, we generally only work with companies in spring, early summer, or in the end-of-winter crisis. We don’t do cost containment well. Our gift is finding and unlocking the passion of spring.

What season is your company in? I hope you’ll say what you think in a comment.

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