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Growth or Control? Which Will You Choose?

Organizational Strategy

As an old cowboy once said, “You can’t ride two horses at the same time.”

Sometimes we just have to choose between options and live with the outcome. This reality is very true when it comes to setting the organizing principle for any enterprise. You can’t be headed north and south at the same time. And you can’t be organized for growth and control at the same time. Holding on to both means losing both.

I first heard this idea a couple of decades ago from a mentor who was leading his Fortune 100 team through an explosive growth period. He and his company were on the early track of forging and executing high-level massive global partnerships managing billions of dollars of business each year.

His biggest challenge? Helping the “old timers” loosen their grip on the hyper-control, highly-linear culture that had made them famous. These “old timers” loved the results of growth but were uncomfortable with the looser, more agile approach to partnering. Time and again, my mentor had to preach that you can’t have both and you have to choose—control or growth.

I recently heard this same idea (again) from a colleague in New York who was quoting a pastor friend. In an instant, all the memories of my early mentor flooded my mind. There it was again: you can’t have both. You can’t design for growth and control at the same time with the same energy. I say it all the time and really believe, “Every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”

Growth
If you want growth, you need to bake it into your design model. One common element some companies utilize is more decentralized operations and, in particular, decision making. This is essentially the idea contained in the old classic The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Ron Beckstrom.

Brafman and Beckstrom look at organizations as diverse as the Apache Nation and Craigslist to make their point that decentralized organizations have tremendous potential for growth. By depending on peer relationships to govern, these organizations dramatically increase the speed of new ideas and growth. Craigslist, for example, had just 40 employees (in comparison, Facebook had 6,500) but managed more than 50 billion posts per month.

Peter Drucker saw this trend coming decades ago: “It isn’t difficult for us to get people into middle management today. But it is going to be, because we shall need thinking people in the middle, not just at the top. The point at which we teach people to think will have to be moved further and further down the line.”

How do you structure for growth? Here are five tips:

  • Know where to place your best bets. In other words, you need to know what you growth drivers are. Luck is not a growth driver. And you must fuel the growth drivers with adequate resources. No fire burns long without oxygen and some kind of fuel.
  • Set a growth climate and culture. Talk growth. Set goals. Monitor and measure growth. Reward growth.
  • Give employees more authority. In everything from customer service to budget creation, but especially in innovation, give employees more authority than you’re immediately comfortable with. In this Forbes article on Chick-Fil-A, notice two things: 1) how quickly it’s growing; and 2) how often the VP mentions the authority that individual operators have.
  • Encourage meaningful crosstalk. You want your employees talking with each other. When you get a question, help them think about other employees who could help them answer that question. Encourage them to share cell phone numbers. I know this can slide into non-efficiency and must be balanced. But meaningful and healthy crosstalk is essential to spur and sustain growth.
  • Urge the executive team to do lots of vision casting and road clearing. If they are doing that job they won’t have much time to police the day-to-day operations (the habit of many leaders), which will give those managers more freedom to innovate).

Control
The starfish idea sounds cool and fun, but it’s not always best. And frankly, it doesn’t always work. Companies organized for control are efficient, less volatile and have less short-term risk. Also, they are usually easier to partner with and safer investments.

All organizations eventually have a season of maturity (if they stick around long enough). Their growth slows and they swing back to a control model for a season. They’re the local pizza place that never compromises on its recipe, or the bank that doesn’t grow quickly but is the most financially sound one around.

How do they do it? Here are a few tips for this season:

  • Use this time to shore up your people and processes. There is usually some wear and tear that happens during all growth spurts. So patch the holes. Mend the nets. And again, those are for both people and processes.
  • Double down on your culture aspirations. Often, leaders and organizations go the opposite direction. People only buy into control long-term when they believe in the people exerting that control.
  • Hold quality above everything else. Everything depends on a consistent experience for customers; so do intensive quality control, random product checks, etc.
  • Make sure you have the right people and an aligned strategic horizon to fit this stage.
  • Relax and enjoy this period. It might not be the “organizational empty nest” season but it certainly does not carry the weight and chaos of the early stages of explosive growth. And that is OK. I couldn’t disagree more with the old adage that if you are not growing you are dying.

Decide!
At the end of the day, you simply have to choose. Like my friend in a canoe who was fast approaching a downed tree that had created a fork in the river. “It’s better to be wrong than to be indecisive,” he said later.

You’ve got to structure for one or the other. You cannot organize for growth and at the same time organize for control. And always remember, usually your choice is just for a season.


STEVE GRAVES

Steve is an organizational strategist, social innovator, pragmatic theologian, executive coach, and mentor. Over the past 25 years Steve has helped hundreds of organizations launch and scale, while authoring over 15 books aimed at showing business people how to flourish in their life and work.