Any idea, initiative, product, brand, and even organization is subject to the laws of the bell curve. That bell curve may extend over a few months, or even years, but its dynamics affect everything. Exceptional leaders understand this and take the actions needed for each stage of development.
Stage One: Acceptance
A bell curve begins not with rapid acceleration, but slowly and tentatively. The beginning of any program is the same. Growth is slow, progress incremental. Wise leaders understand this and are patient with the process of initial acceptance. They use this stage to learn, listening intently to the advice of early adopters. They then make the changes needed and create an infrastructure that can sustain greater growth. Doing this well is the difference between being a one-hit wonder and actually building a formidable business.
Stage Two: Acceleration
If an idea or initiative gets past the acceptance stage, the days of incremental growth are over. Your bell curve takes off, and, if you invested wisely in stage one, stage two brings rapid acceleration and popular success. Acceptance comes not just from early adopters, but from a growing community of raving fans.
What must be understood about this stage, however, is that your bell curve will ultimately flatten. Many leaders miss this critically important development, distracted by the popularity of their ideas and, perhaps, a bit intoxicated by success. But any project or product, no matter how popular, will peak at some point in time, slowing acceleration.
Stage Three: Deceleration
The transition from acceleration to deceleration is subtle and, on the surface at least, unnoticeable. This is where a leader must be bold and courageous. People assume that past success guarantees future success. But just he opposite is true. According to the bell curve, past success guarantees only the possibility of future failure. Courageous leaders understand this and re-invent their companies, products, and services at the peak of their popularity, avoiding the atrophy that comes from deceleration.
If you don’t do this, disaster awaits you. What was just a slowing of sales turns into a full downward slide, a death spiral. Asleep at the wheel, or just ignorant of the laws of the bell curve, leaders are shocked at this sudden, rapid fall from grace. But it was inevitable when the initial indicators of deceleration were ignored. We need only look at the iPhone and the iPad for examples of what re-invention looks like, and to Blackberry–who once owned the smart phone marketplace–as an example of what it doesn’t look like.
Stage Four: Rejection
In this final stage the car hits the wall at the bottom of the hill, the airplane never pulls out of its death spiral and crashes to the ground. The great idea now seems passe, the bold new initiative boring. Brands become irrelevant, and businesses close their doors. All preventable, however, if leaders were more attentive and responsive in stage three.
What should you do about this?
Honestly assess where you’re at in each of the of the stages outlined above. Don’t pretend that the bell curve doesn’t apply to you. No one is immune from its laws. And don’t let rapid deceleration sneak up on you. Courageously re-invent yourself at the peak of popularity. Also, know when it’s time to kill something. In other words, when a program has landed in the rejection stage, even if it has a rich and celebrated history, let it die. It’s only draining your company’s valuable resources. This too requires courage, an attribute essential for exceptional leadership.