It’s not a cycle

If it’s not a cycle, don’t call it a cycle.

In the past few days I’ve had a fair bit of struggle to get clients to understand the difference between a linear-sequence with a beginning, a middle and an end, versus a true cycle where the end of one sequence links to or becomes the start of the next.

Cycles are literally cyclic: they’re not just linear sequences, they repeat, often in self-similar ways that are rarely ever quite the same. And the problem is that there are a lot of so-called ‘cycles’ that aren’t cycles at all. Some examples:

At root, these are just linear sequences. For example, Tuckman’s ‘Forming’ stage (purpose) leads to ‘Storming’ (the all-too-necessary-yet-often-avoided people-stuff), thence to ‘Norming’ (planning and preparation) and ‘Performing’ (the actual process of delivering the project). And there it stops: if we’re wise, there’ll also be a final ‘Mourning’ or ‘Adjourning’ phase (closure, completions, lessons-learned), but as far as the individual project is concerned, that’s it. The End – the end-point of a linear sequence.

It’s not a cycle.

To make it a cycle, we need to be able to link the end of one sequence to the start of another: ‘Adjourning’ feeds into and informs the ‘Forming’ of the next project.

Once we have a true cycle, iteration-effects such as complexity and emergence start to appear; continuous-improvement becomes possible; agile self-adapting strategy in a fast-changing environment starts to make sense.

Yet those benefits only become available or visible where there’s a true cycle – not merely a one-shot linear-sequence that happens to call itself a cycle, but isn’t.

Cycles enable visibility of iteration-effects; one-shot linear-sequences don’t. And it confuses the heck out of people that we can have those two very different types of structures arbitrarily assigned the same name.

So if it’s only a linear-sequence, call it a sequence. If it’s a true iterative cycle, call it a cycle. If, like Tuckman’s project-lifetime model, it’s a sequence that can also be linked back to itself to create a true cycle, call it a sequence when it’s a sequence, and a cycle when it’s a cycle. Don’t mix them up!

In short, if it’s not a cycle, don’t call it a cycle. Please?

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5 Comments on “It’s not a cycle

  1. Seasonal is cyclical. Maybe they will understand that analogy. Another is preparing for the holiday season. Hallmark prepares a year before to design the cards. A single design goes through a sequence from idea to product…the project is repeatable and slightly different each time but still a linear sequence of tasks and events. Every year has a holiday season … that’s the cycle.

  2. Storming…norming…brings back memories. I recently completely shut down Ravensmeet…completed the mourning for that a long time ago. I still have the domain, not sure what to do with it. :: shrug :: Something will suggest itself.

    • Hi Linda

      Sad to hear that Ravensmeet has faded away – but then I guess I have a fair few domains myself where that probably ought to happen too. Oh well. As you say, “something will suggest itself”. 🙂

      Good to hear from you, anyway – do keep in touch! 🙂

      • I lurk a lot. Much of what you write goes way over my head, but I liked your volcano. Having never seen any kind of active volcanic behaviour, it’s always interesting. 🙂

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