An old friend called this weekend to talk about her business and she asked me for some help thinking about her strategy. She’s quite successful, having worked in corporate America and started several small businesses. Her latest venture is not going as planned. And she didn’t call in a panic, but she did call to talk and reflect. She’s at an inflection point and that got me thinking.
Inflection points, or turning points, are interesting teachers if you really want to learn and are willing to be open and honest with yourself. Inflection points also test your resolve, your confidence, your appetite for risk, your passion, etc. They force you to dig deep, to understand what you’re really trying to do and whether it’s worth it.
For some people, inflection points destroy them. For others, they propel them forward—maybe even in a different direction—but the path, nonetheless, is forward.
Reflect on inflection points
I’ve had many inflection points throughout my career.
- Do I stay in accounting and become a partner in an auditing firm or a CFO?
- Do I pursue a career in management consulting?
- Do I stay on the partner track or pursue my MBA?
- Do I come back to Andersen after my MBA or try my hand at investment banking?
- Do I stay in consulting or explore running a business?
- Do I want to be a CEO or would I like to be a professor?
I’m not sure I always gave these inflection points deep thought. In fact, I think sometimes my ultimate decision was just running away. And in those instances—where I was just running away—I found myself constantly looking back and second-guessing my decision. This made my decision very hard to execute and, in some ways, caused regret. If I’m being honest, it also caused wasted time, energy and friendships. But one positive thing came from all of it—it always gave me a new perspective on life.
So as I began talking with my friend, I said, “Your business is at an inflection point.” She replied with a very simple statement “what do you mean?” She didn’t respond defensively or aggressively, she responded inquisitively. Her question forced me to think and explain.
An intended strategy is not a permanent one
I knew she was at an inflection point, but that could mean different things to different people so I explained my definition. I said, “It’s the point at which what you intended collides with reality and you need to revisit your intent.” She responded by saying “that sounds like giving up.” I said, “Not at all.” She replied by saying, “That’s what I heard. You encountered the real world and it was harder than you thought so you stopped pushing,” she continued.
“Not at all,” I repeated. “I’m asking you to reflect. Think about the assumptions that went into to creating what your intended strategy was. If something is not working, perhaps some of the assumptions you made do not align to reality.”
I had to ask if she was still there. “Yeah, Yeah,” she replied, “just thinking.”
That’s an inflection point when what you intended does not fit reality and you need to adjust. Not just push or try harder or quit, but stop and think about where you need to push to propel yourself forward and honestly ask is it worth it. You need to question and debate the assumptions that went into your intended strategy. It’s not about being wrong; it’s about being less informed when you started—and that’s ok. You took a risk, you got started, and that takes courage and confidence. Now that you have some real experience behind the initiative, you can refine your assumptions based on market feedback.
I explained to my friend that she had an intended strategy but also needed to develop an emergent strategy now. This is a revised strategy based on the realities of the market. She’s not giving up; in fact, she’s learning and becoming smarter. She’s actually increasing her chances of survival.
When I paused and asked her if that makes sense, she said, “I think so. I’m going to use the idea of intended and emergent strategy with my team at our off-site next week and see what we learn.”
On the road of life and business, it’s the journey that matters
It’s not uncommon what she’s facing, whether in business or our personal lives. Maybe you’re at an inflection point right now. If so, don’t panic. Remember, you have options beyond “just push forward” or “give up.” Ask yourself what assumptions did I make about my intentions and are they still relevant today? If not, where do I need to adjust to move forward?
On the road of life, direction can take you much more than just forward or backward. You can go left, you can go right, and you can take a sharp turn or a slight curve. It’s never too late to consider the route and try another direction—that’s what makes the journey so exciting.