M-Theory: To everything there is a season

Written by: Melanie Baker | 11 November 2021 | M-Theory, Opinion

( Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart )

Well, the season of darkness is upon us. As pre-industrial cycles went, by this time of year the harvest is in, the frost has come, and it is time for much to lie fallow and for work to be about maintenance rather than building or growth.

Of course, we are well beyond the industrial age, not so many of us farm anymore and, thanks to climate change, frost’s days are numbered. We can’t really control seasons, aside from flying away from the ones we don’t like.

People have seasons and cycles as well. By extension, so do companies, since they’re made up of people’s work and decisions.

Humans have cycles in both their personal and work lives. Sometimes they align, sometimes not. Companies don’t have personal lives. Perhaps that explains why so many of them are so bad at creating environments to enable their employees to have them.

Newness is energizing, and that affects people and companies. We get excited about a new job, we want to learn, we want to get down to business and contribute, make things, solve problems. We don’t mind staying later or trying to knock a few things off the to-do list on the weekend.

The same goes for startups. There’s a Big Idea and we’re going to solve a huge, lucrative problem. We’re going to disrupt a huge, lumbering industry. We know competition will be snapping at our heels soon, so we need as much first-mover advantage as possible. Hence the need for staying later and hitting that to-do list on the weekends.

The sun is shining, the ground has thawed, the only remaining snow is in the crusty patches in the corners of parking lots. Everyone is emerging. The spring rain has arrived, and it is time to germinate, baby! (And hopefully not get dumped on by a late snowstorm.)

As a company grows, the energy changes. It starts making sales and hiring more people. There are more slide decks. A lot of the energy feeds chaos, to be honest. The transition from startup to scale-up is hard. People know what work needs to be done  – which is what a lot of those new bodies are for – but getting the work done is messy.

The old guard often no longer have the intimate and interactive access to leadership that they once did. Week to week you’re not sure who’s in charge of X now. Things fall through the cracks because there are no processes or paper trails for requests and projects. And so it goes.

That chaos fuels people, too. Often negatively, as you can imagine, though it’s easier to ride it out if you’ve seen it before. If you haven’t, it tends to fuel fear and annoyance. Fear that this is what the company is now and will continue to be, and annoyance that there’s no way to do your best work.

You can see what the company needs, and how competitors are not just entering the market, but innovating. But it feels like you’ll never get from A to B amid this mess.

Of course, the chaos feeds some people positively, too. The constant change, the endless possibilities, the rapid pace of growth. There are lots of ways to have an impact. This perspective is more likely if you’re higher up the corporate ladder.

We’re later into the spring and into summer. Plants are growing strong, but so are weeds, competing for nutrients. No more freak snowstorms, but maybe hail. Animals, birds, and bugs are also out and about and looking for food. Everyone wants to avoid becoming food.

Things settle down once the company matures. Hierarchies and processes are put into place, products mature, cycles are planned. There are slide decks everywhere. The energy is calmer, less sexy and less annoying at the same time. The company is still small enough that you know a lot of people. There’s either still only one office, or additional outposts are small.

This energy suits some people very well. It’s stable, less hectic and has more reasonable expectations (theoretically) for people who aren’t 20, who have mortgages and have to get dinner on the table for the kids. You may well get raises.

Some people will feel it’s right to hop off the ride at this point. Perhaps they need change or more excitement, or they started at the company fairly young and fairly junior and have grown enough to need new challenges.

This is where the company really doesn’t feel like its original self anymore. The old guard are substantially outnumbered, and the Peter Principle may be in effect. But there are still some “comrades from the trenches” ties, particularly to leadership, which confer some advantages.

Late summer, creep of fall. The wild green growth has stopped. New shoots are no longer what’s important, seeds are. The later-flowering plants eschew pastel petals for more majestic colours. Goldenrod and aster purple, a flashy advertisement that enervated bees appreciate. Animals are starting to think about fattening up and shedding lighter summer coats. Birds are starting to think about heading south.

At some point some of that youthful juice, that chaotic energy, may get injected back into the company. An IPO, big round of investment, mergers or acquisitions. Sometimes it’s relatively brief, sometimes the company will undergo more than one, so there will be ongoing change, pivots and upheavals. This also suits some people better than others.

Brings to mind a Christmas cactus we had that survived a house fire, then sat for several days in subzero January temperatures. After that it bloomed randomly – March, July, etc. After a few years of that it died suddenly.

Now, let us mosey some ways down the corporate life path. The company is mature. Probably has a bunch of offices, maybe with cube farms. You couldn’t name all the departments, though there is a “band” defining every role on your team. There are systems to record your vacation time.

The company doesn’t really innovate, but has different products with lifecycles and pricing tiers. The company could be 20 or 200 years old. It doesn’t really do chaotic energy. This kind of company suits some people, too. Those people tend to stay a long time. People retire from companies like this, but not so many dream of embarking on their careers at one.

There are a few people who’ve been there forever, and who are very knowledgeable. But to a large degree they’re more like historians, with tenuous relevance to today’s projects. They feel that they don’t get nearly the respect they deserve, and also don’t realize how often they’re roadblocks.

Many people there have MBAs and shelves of business books. There’s a social committee. There may be a brand refresh that takes a couple of years. The new company name will be a made-up nonsense word, and the new colours will involve uninspiring shades of blue or orange. It will cost millions.

Winter has come. The Halloween pumpkins have been composted. The harvest has been completed and the barn doors are firmly closed against icy winds. The ground is freezing and insulated beneath a blanket of fallen leaves and snow. Those meant to sleep are sleeping. Those who remain active now face the challenge of making it through with enough to eat, and avoiding becoming someone else’s meal. Not everyone will see spring.

But, as Waterloo Region has seen over and over, those aforementioned seeds can sprout in nearly any season.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca

Melanie Baker

Melanie Baker has a Mennonite background, a career in tech, and enjoys the unlikely ways these things complement each other. She enjoys writing, working with geeks, building communities, baking and creating fanciful beasts out of socks.