Dirty, Little Secret

“The waste of plenty is the resource of scarcity.” — Thomas Love Peacock

I’ve got a dirty, little secret I want to share … something I’ve been carrying around for a while. Don’t get uncomfortable; it isn’t a confession and doesn’t involve any deep, dark transgressions in Vegas. But before I make a confession, I need to properly set this up.

Have you ever seen the UPS commercial from the early 2000’s about a startup company that went live with their new e-commerce site? It’s pretty funny. Viewers are taken into a small, simple office space where a group of young entrepreneurs are excited to be selling their new product on the web. They surround a computer monitor, push a go-live button, and eagerly watch the counter tracking online visitors. When it registers the first few visits, the entrepreneurs cheer and give each other high-fives. However, soon after, all hell breaks loose as the slow-paced, incremental visits become hundreds … and then thousands — all in a matter of about two seconds. Quickly, the cheers taper; the business newbies go from pure excitement to sheer panic. The gravity of scale sets in.

The UPS commercial exits stage left … and in enters my dirty, little secret. Are you ready? Growth isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.

As my partner and I began our journey to launch a new company and write a book, we were eager to share our ideas with anyone who would listen. Most people graciously absorbed the plethora of information we threw their way and offered instant feedback. A few proclaimed they would buy the book and might even be willing to sign us up for some work. Almost all of them, however, asked, “But how’s that going to scale?”

Here’s what I’ve learned in both life and work: when people operate from a place of abundance, it doesn’t always result in GREATNESS. In fact, I’ve found that when motivated people have scarce resources and need to be scrappier about the decisions they make, they tend to be more focused and invested. As I watched the March Madness basketball tournament the last few weeks, I was reminded of this. After all, most of the human interest stories told on the pre-game shows focused on someone who beat the odds, grew up in tough circumstances, and worked hard to achieve something great.

I think the same is often true in the business world. Leaders like to be part of great turnaround stories. It’s the stuff resumes are built on. Taking a company from worst to first is a big deal — especially for shareholders and team members. And why are turnarounds so great? Because the associated leaders typically have little to work with. They usually start with little cash and resource and therefore are forced to make smart and disciplined decisions, ones that result in massive business outcomes.

This is where the dirty, little secret becomes a big deal. When organizations or individuals achieve GREATNESS, they don’t always operate with the same values, effort, and control needed to stay successful. Growth and scale can become all-consuming, and when this happens, investments are often scrutinized less. Even worse, leaders often commit their people’s time to non-essential elements of the business, which leaves those team members feeling like they aren’t making a difference. Said differently, the discipline of committing cash and people to the vital few gets traded in for the undisciplined pursuit of the trivial many. When that happens, it’s game over.

So for now and for our business … we choose scrappy and disciplined!

Chris Laping is the author of the newly released book, People Before Things. He is also the Co-Founder & CEO of People Before Things, LLC, a company focused on helping leaders create the conditions required to support large-scale, disruptive change. His blogs and book explore the connection of human experience to the outcomes of change and transformation and the role leaders play to pave success. To join the conversation, follow @CIOChris and @pplb4things on Twitter.

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