The Grateful Dead hit their peak in 1977. Miles Davis in 1959, Warhol perhaps ten years later. It's not surprising that artists hit a peak—their lives have an arc, and so does the work. It can't possibly keep amazing us forever.
Fans say that the Porsche arguably hit a peak in 1995 or so, and the Corvette before that. Sears hit a peak more than a decade ago. It's more surprising to us when a brand, an organization or a business hits a peak, because the purpose of the institution is to improve over time. They gain more resources, more experience, more market acceptance… they're not supposed to get bored, or old or lose their touch. If Disney hadn't peaked, there would never have been a Pixar. If Nokia and Motorola hadn't peaked, there never would have been a smart phone.
One reason for peaking turns out to be success.
Success means more employees, more meetings and more compromise. Success means more pressure to expand the market base and to broaden the appeal to get there. Success means that stubborn visionaries are pushed aside by profit-maximizing managers.
An organization that seeks to continue its success, that wants to keep its promises to customers, employees and investors needs to be on alert for where the peak lies, and be ready to do something about it. And the answer isn't more meetings or more layers of spec.
I got my first Mac in 1984. I was a beta tester for the first desktop publishing program (ReadySetGo) and I've used a Mac just about every day for the last thirty years. It occurred to me recently that the Mac hit its peak as a productivity tool about three years ago.
Three years or so ago, the software did what I needed it to. The operating system was stable. Things didn't crash, things fit together properly, when something broke, I could fix it.
Since then, we've seen:
Operating systems that aren't faster or more reliable at running key apps, merely more like the iPhone. The latest update broke my RSS reader (which hasn't been updated) and did nothing at all to make my experience doing actual work get better.
Geniuses at the Genius Bar who are trained to use a manual and to triage, not to actually make things work better. With all the traffic they have to face, they have little choice.
Software like Keynote, iMovie and iTunes that doesn't get consistently better, but instead, serves other corporate goals. We don't know the names of the people behind these products, because there isn't a public, connected leader behind each of them, they're anonymous bits of a corporate whole.
Compare this approach to the one taken by Nisus, the makers of my favorite word processor. An organization with a single-minded focus on making something that works, keeping a promise to users, not investors.
Mostly, a brand's products begin to peak when no one seems to care. Sure, the organization ostensibly cares, but great tools and products and work require a person to care in an apparently unreasonable way.
It's always tricky to call a peak. More likely than not, you'll be like the economist who predicted twelve of the last three recessions.
The best strategy for a growing organization is to have insiders be the ones calling it. Insiders speaking up and speaking out on behalf of the users that are already customers, not merely the ones you're hoping to acquire.
Most Apple parables aren't worth much to others, because it's a special case. But in this case, if it can happen to their organization, it can happen to yours.