Phase 1: Emergence
This cycle begins with Emergence. There is a point of creation after a moment of inspiration or a good brainstorming session and suddenly a new product hits the market. Relevance is low at this stage. The business has to determine its target audience, and even once it has, it still needs to gain its attention. This stage is one of exploration, experimentation and creativity. Often a small team of like-minded individuals rally round the new vision with a shared commitment and sense of anticipation. Budgets are low, stakes are high and the smallest victory is cause for celebration.
Phase 2: Prominence
Following the slow build of momentum in Phase 1, this new phase is characterised by strength, growth and emergence into the limelight. The business’s market is increasingly being established and the focus moves from creativity and innovation to growth and expansion. In order to support the burgeoning success, the business’s back-end administrative function also expands. Staff numbers and office sizes increase. At the same time, internal systems and processes begin to form as ‘best practices’ are identified. Lines of authority are established and management structures solidify in the name of efficiency. Momentum in this stage feels effortless, and many businesses make the mistake of becoming intoxicated on this sense of invincibility.
Phase 3: Irrelevance
What this intoxication on success often results in is a disregard for the creative thinking that built the business in the first place. What this usually results in is a steady descent into irrelevance, which is Phase 3. What once felt fresh and exciting becomes mundane and it feels the business is merely doing what it has always done. Even the company’s slogans, phrases and messaging which once held such meaning begin to feel like empty rhetoric.
Even though the business may on the surface seem like it is going well, leaders fall into the trap of assuming that doing what they always did in the past will keep them afloat in the future. Rather than remain agile, responsive and innovative, internal processes and systems are cemented and change becomes impossible. The business reaches a point of crisis from the inside out.
Phase 4: Obsolescence
This final phase of the Relevance Curve finds businesses swimming against the tide. By this point, denial, scarcity and protectionism become dominant forces. The strategic focus shifts from efficiency to cost-reduction and damage control. Any action at this point is often too little too late. This is where businesses inevitably end up when they fail to act at Phase 3.
This cycle can seem overly fatalistic and hopeless when we fail to recognise our own ability to disrupt it. The Law of Entropy offers a good comparison here. One definition described entropy as the process by which “anything left to itself will naturally tend towards decay”. What I like most about this definition are the four words “anything left to itself”. While it is true that there is a pattern to relevance, it is also true that many great organizations, businesses, products and movements decline long before their time because of specific actions, or inaction.
The good news is that if entities play their cards right at the point of crisis, they can turn things around and regain momentum, vitality and relevance. Often it is the very crisis encountered at Phase 3 that forces the innovative thinking a business needs to restart the cycle.
In order to refresh a business, one of the most crucial process involves deliberately pruning away the systems and traditions that are preventing agility and creativity. It is akin to the way gardeners not only prune away dead branches but also seemingly healthy ones in order to ensure greater growth and better fruit in the future. Even things that seem to be working well sometimes need to be rethought for the sake of revitalising a business.
Steve Jobs recognized the importance of pruning underperforming products and non-strategic initiatives. Back in 2006 when Mark Parker assumed the role of CEO at Nike and sought advice from Jobs, the Apple guru was candid. “Nike makes some of the best products in the world, but you also make a lot of crap,” he said. “Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.” Although the advice may have been blunter than Parker had anticipated, he conceded later that Jobs was absolutely correct. “We had to edit,” as Parker described it.
Jobs offered similar advice to Larry Page upon his return to the helm at Google. Jobs warned Page that Google was making products that were adequate, but not great, and that he needed to cull some of them. Page took Steve Jobs’ advice to heart - within seven months of his return, Google had killed off 25 projects.
Whether it is pruning away processes that are no longer efficient, people who are not aligned with the vision, or products that do not serve the strategy, this practice is essential for a business that wants to stay free enough to be agile and creative. For businesses that are looking to use the crisis of the last few years to refresh or for those that are sensing themselves entering Phase 3, this practice of pruning is the most effective way to regenerate.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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 Gallo, C. 2011, ‘Steve Jobs: get rid of all the crappy stuff’, Forbes, 16 May
 Rosenthall, J. 2012, ‘Steve Jobs’ advice to Larry Page’, Digg, 22 October
 LeClaire, J. 2011, ‘Larry Page-Run Google shutters 7 more projects’, NewsFactor, 23 November