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A former professional rugby player who has recently joined our speaker roster, Aidan McCullen of Flow Consulting Group speaks around the world on topics like Digital Transformation, Artificial Intelligence, Leadership, Innovation, and Sports Principles for Business.

Aidan McCullen, consultant and champion for change

A champion for change, Aidan is also the host of The Innovation Show podcast.  At heart, in the topics it covers and the people he interviews, this show speaks to the human need to learn: how to adapt and love a changing world.

And it was this very theme of change that we chose to feature this week in a piece adapted from a blog post that Aidan published last year. Enjoy!


“The Phoenix Must Burn to Emerge.” — Janet Fitch

I’m incredibly fortunate to have grown up in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, Ireland, where my father (now retired) was the Park Superintendent. He is largely responsible for renovating the Park to its current glory, but when we first moved there it was neglected and in need of investment.

Mature trees alongside saplings in the Phoenix Park

My father immediately saw that the beautiful mature trees adorning the main avenue would all die in the coming decades, so he set about securing budget to plant new trees in between; the older trees would shelter the younger ones as they grew to maturity.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” — Chinese Proverb

Something similar has to happen when it comes to business succession planning, or what I like to call “Phoenix Businesses”. These businesses consistently renew themselves by using the ashes of their previous incarnation as sustenance during their early fledgling years. Just like the mature trees in the Phoenix Park, the mature business protects its successor saplings to ensure the species’ survival, with minimal disruption to the ecosystem.

The mythical phoenix bird, which arises, reborn, from its own ashes and thus regenerates over and over

The challenges we experience in personal transformations echo those experienced by any business. When we are operating in a certain paradigm or pattern, it can be very difficult to change our perspective, or so involved in protecting current profits that we cannot foresee possible disruptions. We (and forgive the analogy) cannot see the wood for the trees.

But if we’re to succeed in life – and in business – we cannot stagnate. When we can achieve even marginal gains today compared to the person/business we were yesterday, then we’re progressing. It is when we’re blind to necessary evolution, wilfully or not, that we risk stagnation, decline and death.

First an Act of Destruction: Fire Regimes

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” — Pablo Picasso

A fire regime refers to wildfire patterns in an area over long periods of time. Since the 1900s, humankind has tampered with natural fires. However, wildfires are actually essential for the renewal of natural ecosystems. If too infrequent, plants may mature, deteriorate, or die without releasing their seed, but if too frequent, plants may be killed before they mature or release their seed.


Lodgepole pine cones, which open when exposed to the heat from a wildfire or from direct sunlight

In forests prone to fire, plant life has adapted in fascinating ways. Some trees produce resin-coated cones containing mature seeds that are activated only when fire breaks out. Other plants’ seeds have a thick outer coating that needs to be burnt off by fire to release the seed. Just like the phoenix, they then rise from the ashes.
Businesses can learn a lot from forest fire ecosystems (as can humans).

Decay Rate”S”

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus 535 BC — 475 BC

Just as forest life has adapted to wildfire, businesses must evolve to meet new market expectations. Disruption and/or evolution demands new skillsets and, crucially, new mindsets – before they are ever required. These can then be called upon when, say, an unexpected change in market conditions makes the old skills/mindsets obsolete or ineffectual. The key here is that the new skills involve unlearning as much as learning anew.

Today, a company’s “competitive relevance” has an increasingly shorter lifespan, especially if that company does not believe in succession planning. The sheer speed of change means the linear lifespan of companies is declining rapidly.

But it is not helpful to envisage businesses — nor lives for that matter — in a linear fashion. Linear suggests a start and a finish, a straight line until you die, but we’re not made for that, and nor is business. Instead, we need to visualise evolution in ways that are helpful, such as S Curves and Decay Rates.

S curves are a helpful way to illustrate continual innovation

S curves can be used to map company/product performance over time. There is flat growth at the bottom of the S, followed by rapid growth and then a dominant market position at the top of the S. After dominance, businesses or products start to plateau and experience stagnation, process optimisation, automation and job cuts.

Innovate, don’t stagnate

While market dominance is desirable in any endeavour, success can be a terrible teacher. When we’re dominant in any field we often become complacent and so stop learning, seeking or being curious. We become fixated on maintaining growth by optimising, cost cutting and entering new geographical markets.

If they’re to innovate, companies and leaders must ALSO (not instead) manage the – evolutionary – jump from one S curve to the next. This means succession planning. Think back to the mature trees and the saplings; they are grown simultaneously, side by side, well before the older trees expire. Similarly, businesses must invest in new directions long before their current business experiences any decline.

One great champion of jumping the S curve and thus securing its future is IBM. For decades now, IBM has been dabbling in the world of AI, machine learning and algorithms. Those AI seeds have been incubating carefully and are now ready to bloom.

Now, imagine if IBM hadn’t incubated, invested, or taken a punt? That would mean the end of the road for IBM, a long, painful kiss goodnight.

Be in Control

“Death is nature’s way of making things continually interesting. Death is the possibility of change. Every individual gets its allotted lifespan, its chance to try something new on the world. But time is called and the molecules which make up leaf and limb, heart and eye are disassembled and redistributed to other tenants.” ― Peter Steinhart

Most of us, I imagine, would rather be in control of our destiny than leave it entirely to fate. So as well as managing the business as it is today, we need to lead the business of tomorrow. It makes for a powerful combination. Businesses simply must devote effort to the future of their business – the saplings – or the lineage will end with them.

Know your constraints

On an innovation show I recorded last October (EP 125: The Creative Curve: How to Develop the Right Idea, at the Right Time), I talk with Allen Gannett, Big Data entrepreneur, CEO of Trackmaven and author of “The Creative Curve”.

Allen Gannett, CEO of TrackMaven

In it Allen shares frameworks for creativity in everything from movies to ice cream. There is power in understanding frameworks, particularly constraints. When you understand your constraints, you understand what you’re working with.

As a former professional rugby player, retiring at a young age was one such constraint. For me this was a tremendous gift – to understand that you have a decay rate. To rise from the ashes of that world, you must be willing to ‘kill’ that old version of yourself. You can then take the best bits from the ashes and merge them with your new skills to create a better, evolved version of yourself. This has become a framework to live by: killing yesterday’s version of yourself every night and rising anew every morning.

Like businesses, humans have decay rates; the one great certainty is death (and taxes. Thank you, Marvin Gaye). Life is a framework. Knowing you are going to die makes living all the more exciting, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that.

“Death twitches my ear. Live, he says, I am coming.” — Virgil

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