Lately, I’ve had a few conversations with people whose organizations are going through a not uncommon, but often painful and sometimes even terminal, phenomenon: questioning their relevance, their place in the world.
Even as I type those words they feel heavy. There is weight to the idea that a thing, once useful and full of life and purpose, is now struggling. The warning signs are clear: fewer dollars, programs that aren’t working, staff attrition and low morale, confusion over mission and leadership apathy. Look around. Things may even look dreary: piles of boxes and papers strewn about, too much furniture crowding the space, faded posters hanging askew.
The weight may have to do with grief over the loss of something once great; it may be about the lack of energy to face the situation; it may be because this time in organizations is metaphorical for something we also experience as individuals.
Think of Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller’s 1949 play. It epitomizes the sheer torture of what losing relevance, one’s place in life can mean. It is one of the most brutal plays I know, and everyone should see it. Once. For my part, I will never, ever see it again because I am too afraid I’ll jump up on stage and shake the living daylights out of Willy Loman. Yell at him to wake up, to get him to see that he has choices, and they are way beyond what he has known. Poor Willy. There weren’t any coaches or transition consultants in his day.
Enter the good news: today we know that the phenomenon of declining relevance is part of a natural cycle, like the seasons. All living things, including people and organizations – for profit, nonprofit, and governments - traverse through stages in life. These stages of growth, maturity, harvest and repose may take place over different time spans (months, years, even eons – remember the dinosaurs?), but they are inevitable. And seasoned leaders are seasoned because they have learned to watch for the symptoms, the harbingers of each, and to act in accord.
Without such seasoned leadership, the first of these stages is usually the most uncomfortable in an organization. Each stage comes as a surprise, throwing people into a reactive mode rather than a responsive one. On one end of the cycle are start-ups. Many more start-ups fail than make it because the people running the start-up fail to recognize and anticipate the symptoms, have no plan for addressing them, and otherwise are as spring green as their organizations are.
On the other end of the seasonal spectrum, an organization (or an industry, a sector or even a nation) that’s been around for a substantial amount of time and achieved relative success, even major success, may begin to experience signs of decline. If this is the first time this has happened, leadership is often confused by what’s going on and may or may not even be willing to name it. The more seasoned leaders utter the word “relevance.” The bold ones look it square in the eye and start getting creative (Steve Jobs is the stunning example of this kind of bold creativity at work).
Relevance is a great word. It stands for currency in the world. Does the organization do something, make something, serve something that is currently recognized and needed? Does it do this in a way that people respond to, that works now? Relevance is not about resting on our laurels. We once could have been the greatest thing since sliced bread (or Polaroid or Blockbuster), but now is what counts.
The key to relevance is knowing that it is all about currency, all about the NOW. And for this reason, everything, every organization has a shelf life. The question then becomes, how do we recognize the signs before we are obsolete? And what will we decide to do when those signs are in our sights?
How do we recognize the signs? Should we wait until the catastrophic ones like apathy, attrition and bankruptcy are looming? Of course not. The best way to see the signs is to develop a regular process for taking a look, for assessing institutional viability in the marketplace. Most organizations do this to some degree. Combine this with a regular process for looking out into the world, to watch for shifting trends that may affect your business, and now leadership can effectively maintain a course for continued relevance.
Then, when the signs are in our sights, what are we willing to do? Is leadership willing to act on the signs, swiftly and decisively? Are they willing to do what it takes, to reinvent the organization, if called for? This could mean shutting down a major part of the business or opening a new one on the other side of town or the other side of the world. It might mean giving away a whole line of products to ensure the continued vibrancy of the core business. (Sound familiar? Google does this.) It might even mean shutting things down altogether. If relevance is so threatened, is it better to choose death or to go down by increments, painfully, publicly, perhaps even infamously? (Circuit City comes to mind.)
I suggest choosing death, remembering that death too, is part of the cycle. Willy Loman killed himself, and maybe, in the end, it was his best choice. I like to think that, with a little (ok, a lot) of coaching and perhaps some skills development, Willy could have reinvented himself. But unlike Willy, in the case of organizations, even death isn’t final. It can result in rebirth, in a new beginning toward relevance, even greatness.