Growth: Where to find it & what to do with it
Healthy Things Grow
I first heard “healthy things grow” a few years back — I’m sure many of you have as well. I’m not familiar with the origin of the phrase, as it’s a widely circulated idea. It’s pretty simple, but sometimes that most simple ideas are the truest (*sometimes).
Spring is often the time I’m reminded of growth. The warmth of the sun returns color back to the world. My dead and dry flower beds return to life. The trees regain their leaves. Nature seems to rediscover growth, and it energizes me. For the curious, it also begs a deeper question. Where does growth originate? Personal growth. Business growth. How do we grow things (if we can control it, that is)?
I’ve read two very intriguing posts on the subject recently. Startup investor Howard Lindzon wrote on it the other day while discussing Warren Buffet. “Growth is not a strategy, it’s an outcome”, he wrote in his piece by the same title. That statement really resonated with me.
Soon after, I stumbled upon David Heinemeier Hansson’s (DHH) exceptional story on Singal v. Noise, “Exponential Growth Devours and Corrupts”. If you haven’t read it, it’s probably best that you just ditch out on finishing this piece and read that one. It’s very good.
These posts, this time of year, some conversations, and recent client work, have been drawing me towards the question of growth. It’s been swirling in my mind. What is growing right now? What is changing? What isn’t growing? And, ultimately, can we get to a pattern or theme. Is there a ‘why’ and a ‘how’?
Unhealthy Things Grow, Too
Have you read anything about Uber recently? We’ve all been slowly learning over the past weeks what some have apparently been experiencing for a while now: Uber has a toxic culture. As the New York Times is reporting, Uber’s relentless drive towards growth seems to have fostered a cutthroat and aggressive culture littered with complaints, threats, lawsuits, and scandal. Forbes is reporting that the number of Uber employees now looking to jump ship has spiked significantly. This has all culminated with Uber’s VP of growth resigning from his position. To learn more, just search Twitter for #deleteuber.
Really, unhealthy things grow all the time. We can look back to the recent housing crisis to find an example of unhealthy economic growth. Stack up some subprime mortgages and watch it grow like a Chia Pet. The horrible scourge that is cancer shows us how quickly and relentlessly unhealthy things grow.
We obviously can’t assume that the only path to growth is health. Uber valued at over $70 billion says otherwise. While healthy things might grow, unhealthy things grow as well.
There’s (at least) Two Kinds of Growth?
In his Signal v. Noise article I referenced above, DHH writes:
“There’s a decade and more’s proof that growing like a virus, gobbling up other businesses to cling to the exponential, is how you can be ‘successful’.”
DHH specifically calls out a kind of growth that can destroy: viral growth. Growth that, like a virus, clings and grabs on to whatever it can as it overtakes. Viruses can’t survive on their own but need hosts. They take things over, kill them to make more of themselves, and then move onward.
There’s a very interesting contrast set here between what we might call “viral growth” versus “healthy growth.” In Howard’s piece, “Growth is not an Outcome,” he shows us the disciplined process of long sustained healthy growth. In DHH’s piece, he shows the destructive process of viral expansion. Both grow. Eventually, one dies while the other seems to grow on.
Howard’s inclusion of Warren Buffet is quite the contrast to Uber CEO Travis Kalanak. Buffet is famous for his Salamon Brothers testimony to Congress. Kalanak, on the other hand, is looking for leadership help now as he struggles to understand and control a damaged culture.
“Lose money for the firm and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless.”
Growth is a (Lazy) Strategy
It would seem to me that growth really is a strategy, it’s simply a lazy strategy. Growth for the sake growth is relatively easy. Pump enough money into anything, and we can get it to grow. But what’s the real outcome, long term? As it would appear, shortcuts typically lead to shortcomings. Hacking our way to growth seems to leave a wake of destruction that ultimately has no foundation for sustained existence. Maybe the desire for more eventually turns on itself, seeking growth even at the detriment of the company or person.
Growth is not that different on a personal level. We can buy and hack our way to personal “growth.” There may be no better example than scrolling the headlines of Medium articles. You’ll probably see, “5 simple ways to…”, “10 easy steps…”, and “6 quick tips…”. You can pick up a few self-help books. Some of the top books right now are, “You are a Badass” and “The 5 Second Rule”. I’m not saying these resources have no value, but they seem to play right to our desire for a quick growth fix.
By contrast, the growth in my life that has sustained is growth rooted in a disciplined effort. Reading full books. Sustained and intentional relationships. Consistent diet and exercise. Of course, those aren’t very sexy topics. Nobody wants to read, “A Very Long Program That Will Probably Help You Grow If You Work Really Hard.” I doubt that would get a lot of retweets.
Maya Angelou said, “I believe that the most important single thing, beyond discipline and creativity is daring to dare.” We must try new things, step out, be creative, and grow. Growth doesn’t happen in our comfort zones; it requires that we take risks. But this all happens on the foundation of discipline.
Do We Just Slow Down?
That’s the $70 billion question, isn’t it? Must we assume, then, that any growth that is healthy and sustainable is slow? That would seem to be a pretty surface level assumption. It would also be quite useless. Things will grow rapidly at times. Specifically, things enabled by technology. Messages spread faster. Products are built faster. To say that growth must be slow would be useless to anyone trying to manage a rapidly advancing opportunity. Further, few of us are going to be compelled by a life characterized only by a constant and slow grind. Let’s not get too stoic here.
Looking across the river from Omaha you’d find a company called Workiva. Grown in Des Moines, Workiva went public just a few years ago and is still seeing significant YoY growth. It is continually rated as a top place to work and a top place for diversity. Somehow, they are growing with a healthy culture.
As mentioned earlier, Buffet and his team seem to find a way to bring tremendous growth to Berkshire each and every year. Their stock price increased by a mind-blowing 1,800,000% between 1964 and 2014. The S&P 500, grew by a mild 2,300% over that time(more on that here). Rapid growth can happen, it would seem, in a healthy way.
Don’t Become Overgrown
Maybe the problem isn’t the speed of growth but the breadth and complexity that comes with growth. Every growing thing must be pruned. This spring I’ll head out and clean up the landscaping. I’ll cut back old growth, clean up ugly sprouts, and pull out what has died. Without this work things become overgrown, and new growth is choked out. Overgrowth chokes out the new and healthy.
At my previous house, I had a flowering crabapple tree in the backyard. When it flowered in the Spring, it was stunning. However, after the blooming, I was left with a really ugly tree. The tree had never been pruned and was just a web of entangled branches and shoots. After the quick beauty had fallen away, I had to stare at the ugly foundation for the next few months. I tried to prune it back, but it was so overgrown that that I would have had to eliminate nearly the entire tree. Things had started heading in the wrong direction many years ago for that tree, and it grew in all the wrong places. Early on, the small branches growing vertical could have been easily trimmed to promote the growth of the other limbs. Now, those branches had tangled themselves throughout the tree.
When things grow slowly, there is more margin to react. We have more time to recognize the shoots heading in the wrong direction on our tree. But when things grow rapidly, we have less margin. It would seem that rapid growth isn’t itself what’s wrong, it’s the lack of disciplined guidance of that growth that is the problem. As DHH called out, “exponential growth devours”. Great leaders are skilled gardeners. I see them prune back the unplanned, unorganized, and unfocused in favor of the strategic. Moreover, the hardest person to lead is ourselves. Maybe that’s why personal growth is so incredibly difficult. I should probably prune some stuff out of my life.
Be Healthy and Picky
So where do we find growth? We find it in many places, but we should favor the healthy and sustainable over the viral and quick. What should we do with our growth? Be very picky. As with so many things in life, there is a balance here that we must attend to. Not all viral growth is bad but unchecked and unattended it becomes toxic.
We need vision. We need purpose. We need to understand the ‘why’ behind each move. We should never be frozen by discipline, unable to act. We must be disciplined in our assessment of those actions. We should be looking to the future and asking, “where is this growth going to take me”? We should carefully understand how growth will help us accomplish the vision we have outlined.
The faster we grow the more disciplined we must become. Rapid growth require relentless discipline. No matter where we find the growth, that’s what we do with it. We curate, guide, regulate, and trim.