Is There Such a Thing As Too Much Growth?

Kathryn Scanland Change

If you ever had enough, could you recognize it?  Leaders can.  ~inspired by a bumper sticker

A phrase I hear repeated frequently is you’re either growing or your dying.  I’d like to go on record as respectfully disagreeing with that concept.  I believe that our culture has taught us that “more” is a sign of success, that growing has not only become a symbol of competence but of respect and admiration, and anything less is failure.  Where has this culture of continuous and infinite growth gotten us?  More Americans now declare bankruptcy than graduate from college. The self-storage industry (where we store all our “growth” that we can no longer fit in our homes) is bigger than the motion picture industry.  According to the Ecological Footprint, humanity’s consumption of natural resources first exceeded the planet’s stores in 1985, and by early in this century we were consuming over 25 percent more than our supply.
By now I’m sure some of you are asking: what’s that got to do with organizational growth?  Well, I think a lot.  As a society, we seem to have lost our ability to recognize “enough.”  As a result, we’ve all seen organizations grow themselves right out of business and individuals grow themselves into utter ruin.  They couldn’t recognize “enough.”
In my academic career I’ve had my share of statistics and economics courses.  Sometimes I think I’ve studied a bell curve from every possible perspective.  Whether it’s the law of diminishing returns, the product life cycle, or plotting a standard deviation, there’s always a common pattern – an incline, a peak and a decline.  I would like to suggest that the peak of that bell curve represents “enough.”
Imagine a leader who can recognize when his/her organization has reached that peak, and instead of continuing to press on with yet more growth, they focus on adapting and sustaining that peak as long as possible. They can recognize “enough.”  I’m certainly not suggesting that they become complacent, to the contrary.  Sustaining a peak is a balancing act incorporating discipline and adaptability.  Being at the point of “enough” doesn’t mean you’re not changing; in fact, you may be doing a great deal of changing and adapting in order to stay at that peak.  The key is that you’ve recognized “enough.”
In Jim Collins’ book, How the Mighty Fall, he describes this phenomenon as the “unsustainable quest for growth.”  “Success creates pressure for more growth, setting up a vicious cycle of expectations; this strains people, the culture, and systems to the breaking point; unable to deliver consistent tactical excellence, the institution frays at the edges.”
Collins adds to the idea of growth with what he calls “undisciplined discontinuous leaps.”  He defines these leaps as, “dramatic moves that fail at least one of the following tests: 1. Do they ignite passion and fit with the company’s core values?  2. Can the organization be the best in the world at these activities or in these arenas?  3. Will these activities help drive the organization’s economic or resource engine?”
Are we growing or are we dying?  Maybe, we simply have “enough.”
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Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.

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