The Middle

"No extraordinary journey is linear."

Although the idea of consistent incremental progress is appealing, I think it’s rare that actually happens.  Even when numbers ‘on the outside’ play this out, there are always ups and downs and sideways(es) along the way.  Let’s track a simplified version of LearningLeaders growth over the last ten semesters.  In the graph below is a visual representation of the number of enrollments and the dotted line is fitted to the enrollment curve.


It seems straight, eh?  Pretty wild.

That’s not really a natural or normal thing to have steady growth like that for a period of 4-5 years for any company.  Most companies have swings up and down or years or quarters of no growth, or dips in their business.  Or years or quarters where business explodes upwards and heads to the asymptote quicker than someone fired out of a cannon.  In fact, such a steady trend of growth suggests that we’ve hit something pretty special here.

I have a few observations to share after seeing at this chart.  Bear with me.

The first is that we’ve had abnormally consistent growth in the last 4-5 years.  How abnormal?  Are you ready for this?  The R-value of the trend line is 0.9963.  That is nearly perfectly linear!

We all know behind the linear progression on the outside are dips and swings and spikes and lifts on the inside.  Every advance and step forward we have in our processes and progress often reveals new areas where we need to improve.  With each breakthrough, we find a breakdown.  And from solving each breakdown, we find a new breakthrough!  So, the chart above, when we map onto it a line plotting the level of challenges we’ve faced should probably be viewed more like this:


Our job is to enjoy the highs and make them last as long as possible and be prepared for the lows when they come.  Sometimes, when you’re ‘in the thick of it,’ you can only see the five feet in front of your face.  The fog of war is too great to see into the distance and it feels like you’re staring into a headwall or a cliff.  Have faith and persist.  There is another day and another adventure that will move us in the right direction.  Sometimes it’s hard to stomach the volatility on a day-to-day basis.  Sometimes it feels like we’re on a roller coaster.

I don’t know about you, but I much prefer macro-stability and micro-volatility than the other way around.  I can get down with linear growth.

The second note I’d like to make is that we’re still just getting going on our journey.  When Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, likes to say at Amazon it’s ‘Always Day One,’ what he means is that the number of different turns our journey can take is immense.  An entire universe of possibilities exists in front of us and it is only us who can decide where it will lead.

No extraordinary journey is about the start or the end.  The start and end aren’t the interesting parts.  Those are scripted.  The interesting bit is the middle.  And that’s where we are right now.

The middle.

The start of any venture or any expedition is romantic and exciting.  It feels like a honeymoon period - enchanting and seductive.  You’re boarding the plane and heading off to that unknown adventure.  You gaze back and see your family waving to you as they disappear into the distance.  You kick off the dock and watch the shore fade out of view.

But after a while, the adrenaline starts to fade.  The romantic visions you had about a perfect journey and expedition fall away.  You forgot to bring something with you.  You find yourself lost for a moment.  You realize there’s something you’re unprepared for.  Now is when the rubber meets the road and the true success and enjoyment of your adventure is made.  It’s once the chips are on the table and you are pot committed do the stakes become higher than ever.  That’s what makes the middle interesting.  It’s when you have the most white space around you.

This brings me to my third and final thought I’d like to share: as the journey progresses, freedom increases.  The beauty of the ’start-up’ phase is that you need to be laser-focused on just one or two initiatives at once.  If you are spending energy on peripheral ideas or projects, you die.  As the organization grows, there becomes not only more latitude in terms of how closely initiatives relate to the overall health and goals of the organization, but also a longer feedback loop if they do not.  I’m definitely one for experimentation and trying new things.  Though all of those experiments, through success or failure, should build capacity for the organization to reach the ultimate goal.

With this increased freedom of stability and growth also comes the challenge of: ‘What goal to pursue?’  Sometimes the obvious answer, “Keep doing what you’re doing,” isn’t sexy enough to keep you or others motivated.  Sometimes the blocking and tackling and gritting your teeth with your head down for another six or twelve months does’t feel worth the effort.  But therein lies where I think so many organizations go astray.  They get a whiff of success and fall apart because they don’t know how to react to that success.  As the old adage goes, “Most business die from indigestion, rather than starvation.”  In many cases, this indigestion happens because we aren’t sure what to put in our mouths, so we reach for anything that looks tasty at that moment, not what is tried-and-true and got us to that point to begin with.

Freedom and responsibility within a growing organization must go hand in hand.  If you are being trusted with time, space, and autonomy to make key decisions, then delivering on organizational priorities is of the utmost importance.  Freedom and autonomy can be intoxicating.  But let’s not find ourselves with a hangover tomorrow morning.

Though the path of our company’s growth has been wildly steady over these last four and a half years, we must recognize that now we’re in the thick of it.  Ups and downs and sideways(es) will be thrown into the mix - that’s what makes the journey extraordinary.  That’s what will either allow us to achieve our goals in the future, or what will sideline us now and relegate us to the history books.  We’re not ’safe’ yet.  We’re not ‘out of the woods.’  We’re just deeper in them than we’ve ever been before.

It’s not the beginning that defines the journey.  It’s not the ending.  It’s the most amazing, most challenging, most frustrating, most enthralling, most beautiful, most perplexing part.

The middle.