Every curve isn’t a hockey stick – and how to manage that

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When people ask how things are going with Toca Boca, I’ve lately started to say that we are growing up. We’ve passed the phase where we were looking for immediate market fit and are now going through what all companies do when they grow – communication and organization. You know, everyday company stuff. It creeps up on you from behind and suddenly you’ve gone from being a small company to a bigger company, on a curve to becoming something huge. I remember at my old company, Good Old, when we grew to the size where we couldn’t all eat lunch together any more. The company changed instantly that day.

I’ve been thinking about that curve and what it looks like. The curve for change over the lifetime of a company. There are theories around individual events which are similar, but that is not quite the same thing.

In the world of startups, every curve is a hockey stick. Not in real life of course, but the ones that you get to see at least. Nothing, nothing, nothing – and then – fantastic growth/success/improvement, continuously. I wonder if the frequent occurrence of these hockey sticks sometimes changes the expectation of how things should be. It implies that once something happens, it should just continue happening at an accelerated pace, or else something is wrong.

Changing a company is not like that, at least not in my experience. There are bursts but also periods of things being somewhat stagnant. Most likely the change is still occurring, but the perception is that it isn’t. This, in turn, often leads to frustration. There’s a fine balance between acknowledging that things take time, and to not accept a lack of activity.

As a business leader, I find this difficult. The actual curve for each company’s change is probably only recognizable in retrospect. While you’re on it, you often lose your sense of perspective. So without knowing where you are, how can you make everyone feel that things are moving the right way and at the right speed?

Management books would probably tell you that instead of talking about daily progress, you should talk about direction. Vision and goals. It’s a good start for sure. But it doesn’t address the individual issues that come up. When I’m having a problem, I’m not particularly fond of people saying “in 10 years time we’ll all be laughing at this". Even if they are right, it doesn’t help me in that moment.

Communicating where on the company change curve we are is a continuous challenge for me. Perhaps attempting to document it in retrospect could help a little bit. Being a better communicator about vision and goals too. Or, at the very least, be very clear that the curve exists and that we are on it whether we want to or not. It’s a part of growing up – and it happens to companies too.

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