How to recognize the gears of change

A recent New York Times article called out the increase of tech executives over 40 due to the still unavoidable aging process. It also noted that this graying effect is making these execs more realistic and introspective. In the frame of popular articles about generational shifts, now it seems that perhaps “millennials” are not quite so reckless, or irresponsible, or short attention spanned. But that may be because in the process of talking about broadly defined generations, we forget to separate what aspects of behavior are due to the generational effect, and which are due to life stage. As this article points out, much seems to be due to life stage. Somehow, as tech warriors have their own children, they become more concerned with tech’s effect on development.

Classic marketing calls out family life cycle when marketing for consumers, correctly identifying that while age and generational group may matter in some ways, behavior is frequently much more aligned with what is going on in your life. A few years ago, when we had work done on our house, we had a contractor in his mid-twenties. While younger than us, he had his own business and 4 kids — definitely not someone for whom “millennial” would not be a fully descriptive tag.

A broader concept of life stage brings in more elements than family situation, and for that matter, can take into account a broader range of family sitituations that more accurately reflects how people live. But as the mellowing of tech execs indicates, it is not just individuals that progress through lifestages, it is businesses as well. Some of this is driven by the owners and executives themselves, and some by the financial situation and growth orientation of the business itself. In my years of studying small businesses, I have identified examples of several stages:

· Starting out: new business, often getting by on bootstrap or loans

· Fast growth: flexible, prepared for change, often looking for outside investment

· Steady growth: well established, revenue increasing year on year

· Transition: established buisnesses with new owners, or otherwise changing processes and/or business model

These are not all the stages, and by no means is meant to cover everything. There are of course businesses that are shrinking, in recovery, or simply maintaining in a fairly steady state. And there are other lenses by which to view business life stage. My broader point is that understanding where these businesses are in terms of life stage is a lens through which we can understand some of their behaviors and needs. What financial services are appropriate? What digital tools? What are their hiring requirements?

Turning back to the tech centered enterprises going through their own growing pains, there is added complexity due to the size of the organizations, but at the same time, recognizable human and business processes at work. Some of the challenges these businesses face are precisely because they have not fully considered these processes and are thus incorporating the perspectives of multiple lifestages into their own strategic planning. For the newer tech companies, it may be about progression to more reflexivity around the decisions and actions, whereas for many older firms it may be about adjusting and adapting to a more digital world.

Here are some starter questions that any business could ask itself as it looks to understand where it is in its own lifestage. How might our business change over time?

· What tools and services will need to support that?

· What implications will these changes have for the kinds of perspectives and experiences are needed inside the company?

· How might our customers change over time?

· Will our current customers having changing needs and values?

· What will future customers expect?

In order to ensure you are not overlooking both positive and negative possibilities, it is valuable to have people with different perspectives address these issues — including ones who may see the future from a more pessimistic perspective. Keep in mind that these are stages, not a cycle. There is no inevitability to the next stage, and part of business planning is having some control over what the next phases may look like. Ultimately, it is also about understanding how all these pieces fit together, and how they might fit together in the future as people, processes and technologies evolve.