Imitating mother nature: The four seasons of business growth

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Embracing the understanding and use of iterative cycles in growth is one of the principles of business design thinking. Why is applying the principle of iterative cycles important? Alistair Cockburn describes it as “learning by completing.” An underlying principle of the iterative method is that until you build what you are designing, you will not fully understand it.

Many variants on the iterative process exist. But let’s adopt a four-phase view to best illustrate how this business design thinking principle is an apt analogy of marketing initiatives for business growth to nature’s seasons.

Let’s examine the four “seasons” of business growth.

Spring: Explore

“Spring is the time of plans and projects.” (Leo Tolstoy)

The Explore phase is analogous to springtime. This is the time of exploring new ideas, discovering what’s possible. Marketers aspire to achieve great things with their initiatives and dream of how to accomplish it. A human-centered process moves you to begin with “Why?”

Spring is the time in nature when you take stock of what you have, where you have been, and then figure out what you will be cultivating in the next “season.”

In this phase, assess your strengths and weaknesses in your team, processes, and systems. Hold planning sessions, and meet with fellow marketers as well as a diverse set of internal and external stakeholders to hear what they feel is attainable and realistic… and what activities should not be undertaken again. A great ideation session involves a cross-functional set of team members where you frame your marketing initiative as the question “How might we…?”

Summer: Design

“Design is where science and art break even.” (Robin Mathew)

The Design phase is the “summer” season of your marketing initiative. You’ve explored many ideas, and now it is time to plant some concept “design” seeds.

Once you have generated the context and reason for your exploration, then create insights based on your ideas. Use questioning and observation, both internally and “outside” into the actual environment where users will apply the ideas you are exploring.

To gain understanding, create a prototype to test and gather feedback that enables you to quickly discern the key value of your marketing plans to your target audience. Use your storytelling and storyboarding skills to illustrate the value proposition of the initiative.

To learn about the people involved, create persona descriptions of the folks as they go about their work and visualize their activity. This design approach reduces the risk by understanding the value of your program prior to investing in significant marketing resources.

Fall: Deploy

“A pile of rocks ceases to be a rock pile when somebody contemplates it with the idea of a cathedral in mind.” (Antoine Saint-Exupery)

The Deploy phase has the likeness of the fall harvest when you reap what you’ve sown and see your ideas in action. It is time to fully support the real impact of your plan and coordinate the implementation and scaling of your business growth.

Our human-centered, business design thinking approach emphasizes both the customer and the company employees who must execute the process. The instruments for building your plan must provide value for every part of your stakeholder ecosystem, including your employees, customers, and your investors.

Tracking tools should be established to monitor progress. As a result of our approach, processes feel more natural with the people who have to deliver and perform them, which should result in a positive impact on the acceptance of this new way of working.

Winter: Reflect

“Sometimes, you have to look back in order to understand the things that lie ahead.” (Yvonne Woon)

Winter is the time to reflect and gain insights for the next growth cycle and marketing initiative. This final phase is the most critical to stakeholders. As you assess the yield of your efforts, it is crucial to gain an understanding of what went well, what could be improved, and what should be discontinued in the coming year.

Your reflect season is the time to infuse rigor, discipline, and visibility to track results back to budgets and your financial reporting. This is time to make adjustments — to capture plans and new work enterprises.

Looking at the Full Cycle

There are myriad benefits to applying these iterative cycles:

  • You can gather initial requirements and plans faster; you can quickly create premises and assumptions to meet a user’s needs, then develop a prototype to test and gather feedback to rapidly assess the key value to the target user.
  • Long-term planning time is reduced, and your effort is focused on discovering and addressing the key need of your user.
  • By working with rapid iterative cycles, you are better able to react to company, market, or environmental changes. Longer and more resource-heavy methods move more slowly and are less nimble.

All these factors have been shown to reduce time and costs for innovation and growth efforts.

Follow and harness the natural cycle of life: Explore in spring, design in summer, deploy in the fall, and reflect in the winter. Then, repeat it again and again for greater success — and satisfaction!

Originally published at

Parker Lee

Parker Lee is the managing partner of Territory, a design consultancy, who has developed and led teams in transformation, design thinking, and business development for decades. Co-author of The Art of Opportunity, he has created and facilitated dozens of design and visual thinking engagements.

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