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Think in Terms of Cycles; Not Lines

Gauge the time and timing it takes to develop a person, practice or project.

“To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.”  (George Santayana)

Most of our Western concepts of time are linear. Chronos, named for the ancient Greek version of Father Time, is sequential and man-made, as indicated by the technical name for a watch – chronometer. Conversely, Kairos, meaning the right moment or supreme opportunity, is the period in which something special happens, like falling in love. While the first can be measured and the later only anticipated, both are successive in nature. Ironically, it is not time but the productive use of it that confounds us. There is no viable theory for timing in economics or sociology or military science. Currencies go up and down as a matter of course but only those who know exactly when profit from their fluctuation. Social movements begin and end in their own time as do conflicts of all variety and degree. All we can really time is the development cycle of an entity or event. Children grow in phases as do markets as do we. This is the seven ages of man, the circle game and all that jazz. While we cannot master time, we can surely be its attentive servant.

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The ancient monastic sages characterized the totality of our existence, including the reoccurring assortment of loonies we attract to the carny we call our life, as the turning of a great wheel. Our karma and dharma were all part the cosmic cause and effect with no plea bargaining for a reduced sentence. Famously brilliant and bizarre philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche also eschewed the idea of progress, usually considered the destination for our growth, in favor of the eternal return, meaning that the rise of culture and the creation of civilization endlessly repeats itself like a late night infomercial or a smarmy politician.

This life cycle can be seen in the rotation of history. The end of an era is typically marked by increased control, large scale, the centralization of power, and conflict. It is through the act of consolidation and productivity that an age reaches its maturity, and like human beings, begins its gradual descent into decay. This is also true of all time bound life, both communal and individual. How long can a centralized organization exist? The Soviet Union lasted less than a century. Conversely, the beginning of a new era is usually indicated by radical creativity, wild variation, the distribution of energy, and conflict. Conflict is the fundamental trait both beginning and end share. Since an emerging epoch must contend for scarce resources it does not yet posses, it must displace the status quo through some compelling form of deviation.

The more a prevailing power works to maintain its dominant position, the harder the nascent one pushes until someone gives way. Incumbents use their power to keep the rules in place that protect their rent while upstarts and interlopers engage in seditious maneuvers that give them their only pathway to privilege. To complicate matters, there are usually several forces engaged in this most universal tug of war. Of course these basic ideas about the cyclical dynamics of power and growth can be found in Darwin and Marx and their luminous predecessors. The key to avoiding complete displacement and revolution is to incorporate this inevitable dynamic into a productive plan for succession where the younger can be assimilated and accommodated by the older. Consider China, which has existed as a nation state and culture for over three thousand years, and how they have cycled through dynasties and revolutions with a remarkable ability to put itself right side up in every century.

But why do some new organizations get momentum and take hold while others don’t? At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century there were scores of Utopian spiritual communities stated in the United States. By the start of the next Century most of these faded into vague historical landmarks while the few that remained to transcend their geographies and went on to become widely accepted religions.

The late Harvard economist Joseph Schumpeter saw these cycles as more than an enlighten spiritual view when he observed “…out of destruction a new spirit of creativity arises.” He called this cyclical dynamic creative destruction, meaning innovation produces new types of growth that destroys the status quo and requires all companies to respond with better and new products, services and solutions. These radical new innovations create such a distinct and profitable advantage over the traditional fare that they are called in the vernacular category killers. Like the S shaped sigmoid curve in mathematics, the descent of one line precipitates the start of the next. Schumpeter characterized growth as ballistic, revolutionary instead of evolutionary, and warned us all that in our success we sow the seeds of our undoing. It is through our complacency, orthodoxy and desire for serenity that we are dispossessed of our power and treasure

Gauge the time and timing it takes to develop a person, practice or project.

Jeff DeGraff

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Jeff DeGraff, Ph.D., is a professor at University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

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