The Paradox of Change and A Secret to Avoid Decline

Facebook just released a new study. Using their immense dataset (roughly 10% of the global population), they have discovered that we’re not connected by the proverbial six degrees of separation, but only by four, and the degrees are shrinking with the continued rise of social networks around the world. If confined to US users, the degrees of separation are only about three! Can you imagine? You can say with accuracy that any famous person in America is truly a friend of a friend of a friend.

What is particularly fascinating to me is the shape of the graph of the average friend distribution:

Once you hit around 500 friends, you’re fully connected. As I was pondering this deep thought, I realized that this is a classic Sigmoid Curve. What, you say? It looks like Sigmund Freud?

The Sigmoid Curve is a mathematical phenomenon that is quite instructional. In fact I try to base my career choices around it. Churches and businesses would be smart to learn it. Bret Simmons explains it nicely, here:

Things start slow in the beginning. For a while it may even seem like we made a bad decision or started down the wrong path. Then at point A, things start to take off. From point A to point B is a period of accelerating growth and performance. But at point B, we begin to experience the asymptotic limits to growth. And by point C, we experience the pain of inevitable decline. If we wait until point C or even point B to realize that what we are doing will no longer work, we face tremendous hardship and competitive peril. Luckily, there is life beyond the curve. The secret to constant growth is to start a new sigmoid curve before the first one peters out. The right place to start that second curve is at a point where there is time, as well as the resources and energy, to get the new curve through its initial explorations and floundering before the first curve begins to dip downward.

To clarify, an illustration using the same Facebook graph:

The key to success, organizationally and personally, is to never reach C, but to continually create new curves.

This explains why my Facebook friends list is no longer exponentially growing. But maybe there’s something even more important here to learn.

This is the hard part. Simmons points out the essential paradox of change: In order to allow time for the new curve to take affect, you must make change right as the existing curve is taking off! If you wait until the existing curve peaks, then you reach decline before the new curve has its impact.

Michael Miles names the three phases as the Learning Phase, Growth Phase and Decline Phase. The investments we make in the Learning Phase bear little fruit at first, then exponential fruit. It is risky to enjoy the fruits of growth, though, because decline is inevitable. Miles writes:

However, to be truly successful is … to jump off the current curve when it is nearing its peak and start on the bottom of another curve. This can be very hard to do, because just as you are reaping the rewards of your work and application, you find yourself at the bottom of another learning curve. This entails more pain, since growth always involves pain to some degree. It doesn’t appear to make sense to change just as you are doing so well. There is even, perhaps, a sense of loss – why throw away something which is mature and bringing a reward for something untested and new?

However, the most successful among us know that the alternative is an inevitable decline through phase three of the curve. Successful people are regularly reinventing themselves … rising to new challenges and pushing through painful new phases of growth. The junction between the first and second is not easy or clean. There is always a period of confusion, where the first curve is being abandoned and the second one embraced. This is a time of overlap, ambiguity and confusion.

Miles’ description nails a recent period of personal change, as I made a risky move from one seemingly successful business to an entrepreneurial operation within an existing organization. The move involved a long period of confusion and pain, but it was necessary, in my view. I look forward to what I hope is the oncoming growth period of the new operation. The challenge will be to identify point B when it arrives, before point C shows up, and to continue to do so long term, both professionally and personally.