Steady winds, doldrums, and hurricanes

It just so happened that this year, many of my friends and colleagues ended up looking for new opportunities, and in our conversations, I ended up shaping this metaphor. As most metaphors, it’s not perfect, but hopefully, will stir some new insights for you.

We kept trying to describe the energy within organizations and the animating forces that move them. These forces can make our lives inside these organizations a delight – or a complete and utter misery. It seemed like a good idea to understand how these forces might influence us and find ways to sense these forces early. Preferably, even before committing to join a new team.

The idea of presenting these forces as winds seemed rather generative. If we look at the innovation S-curve, we can spot three different kinds: steady, doldrums, and hurricanes. They don’t exactly match the stages I outlined back in the original article. Instead, these winds follow the angle of the S-curve slope.

⛵The steady winds

Steady winds are consistent. We can feel them going in one direction and they change infrequently. Apparently sailors love them, because they provide a predictable way to navigate. Even if it’s not a tailwind, a steady wind can be harnessed through tacking.

Similarly, organizations that are in the upslope of their development tend to have a relatively consistent animating force that feels like a steady wind. Usually, there’s some big idea, some intention, and a group of highly-motivated individuals who set the direction of this wind.

We can feel it as soon as we step into an organization. It usually appears as the ambition of the  charismatic leader/founder, who knows exactly what they want and is doing everything they can to make it possible. More rarely, it might also appear as a set of ideals that depict some future state of the world – and this team has the fire (and funding) to bring it forth.

Steady winds aren’t always great. Sometimes, a steady wind’s direction is simply incompatible with where we want to go. It might trigger aversion in us, or be in discord with our own principles. The leader might be charismatic, yet have character quirks we deem appalling. The big idea might indeed be big, but no matter how much we try to suspend disbelief, we keep finding it laughable.

At the same time, steady winds bring clarity. They give us a very good idea of what this team is about and where they are going. These folks are going someplace. It’s on us to choose to go there with them.

When considering a new team and sensing a steady wind that moves it, ask yourself: is this wind aligned with what I myself want to do? Does it stir fire in my belly? At the very least, can I tack into this wind in a way that moves me where I want to go? And of course: am I at the place where I want to go on an adventure?

Because joining steady-wind teams definitely brings adventure. It might be glorious and awesome, or it might be like the Donner party, with all the fixin’s of freezing to death, scurvy, and/or dysentery. Only time will tell.

If the wind is favorable and adventure is what you seek, such a team might be a good fit.

⛳ The doldrums

Prior to the invention of motors, doldrums were a terrifying thing for sailors. Doldrums meant that to go anywhere, we have to break out our oars and turn our own sweat into motion. There is no wind to help us go anywhere.

Organizations tend to experience doldrums at the top of the S-curve. Once the niche is fully explored and the product or service is optimized to fit it exactly, it is really not clear where to go next. All successful products end up experiencing this. We can see this as fewer interesting changes in them, and a deluge of incremental improvements that may sound exciting, but don’t actually add up to anything like the stuff the organizations used to produce at the upslope.

To get anything done in this organization requires some form of consensus. There are usually processes. Approvals. Reviews. Endless, exhausting discussions. When in doldrums, there’s a prevailing sense of powerlessness, often accompanied by a weird combination of comfort and toil. Everything is hard, but at least it’s exactly the same as yesterday.

Leaders who used to produce the steady wind at the upslope typically leave when they encounter the doldrums. We won/lost. Why stay? Instead, they are replaced by sailors. These leaders concentrate more on preserving what was accumulated so far. Risk is frowned upon. 

It’s not like nothing gets done in organizations stuck in doldrums. There’s always activity, and an appearance of movement. To create this appearance, there’s a syndrome of chronic bigness: every new initiative is bigger than the previous one, ever more bombastically described and painted in brighter colors. Underneath is the same dull surface of still water.

Doldrums aren’t necessarily a red flag for joining. If what you’re looking for is the steady stillness of boring, yet never-ending work, that might just be the place. Large bureaucracies like government agencies and corporate giants have large organizational swaths that live in the doldrums – and necessarily so. Not everything needs to be an adventure. Sometimes, the slow and steady beat of the oars is the only thing that keeps the grand ship inching forward.

However, if you’re seeking something to fill your sails, please keep walking. Committing to a doldrums team will suck the soul out of you and is not worth it.

🌀 The hurricane

The final part of our story is hurricanes. Sailors caught in storms just hang on to their life, trying to survive and keep the ship afloat.

Similarly, organizations find themselves in turbulent waters. This typically happens on the downslope of the innovation S-curve, when the quiet ride through the doldrums is eventually replaced by contact with reality.

In the hurricane, there’s lots of wind. It’s blowing in all directions. To continue our metaphor, the wind is the animating force that is usually created by organization’s leaders and their intentions. In the hurricane, this intention is chaotic and unpredictable. And it’s usually reactive,  spurred by some external threat.

The downslope of the S-curve isn’t fun. The collective anxiety of leaders who got used to the doldrums creates a vicious cycle, exacerbating the situation further. The overall direction is unclear, but not for the lack of effort. There’s lots of movement, and lots of force, all going in circles.

On very, very rare occasions, a new leader emerges and manages to set the steady wind, bringing the team out of chaos. I have seen it happen, but haven’t experienced it myself. 

Unless you’re a total glutton for punishment or have a severe savior complex itch, it is difficult to recommend joining an organization in the hurricane. The trouble is, it’s often hard to tell. It is in nobody’s interest to reveal the true state of disorder to the candidates. So the hurricane-embattled team might appear as either doldrums or steady winds, depending on who you ask.

One of my colleagues recommended this approach: find someone on the inside. Someone who might still be there or left recently. Ask them candidly: “is this a sh*t show?” Watch their reaction and prod a bit. Look for stories that sound like aimless grasping for straws and high anxiety among the team’s leaders. Those are the telltale signs of the hurricane.

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