You are not failing! Understanding organisational growing pains

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I often help growing organisations that have been successful, yet are starting to feel like they are overwhelmed as well as grinding to a halt.  This often comes with a feeling of failure in the CEO and perhaps the Exec team, with good old imposter syndrome usually raising its head.

The good news is…. the situation is not a failure at all.  It’s completely normal. 

And to explain this as well as to know what to do, I often lean on the brilliant work of Dr. Ichak Adizes, in particular his Business Lifecycle.

If the name sounds familiar, I have written about Adizes before when I went through his Managerial Roles.

Adizes now has over five decades of experience, and through observation and testing the whole time, he has identified predictable stages a growing business will go through. 

Here’s how I draw the curve, which is the growth part of the Business Lifecycle: 

Now let’s go through the stages.  As always, it will somewhat be my way of explaining it.

Early Stages

The first stage is Courtship.  Nothing is born yet, we just have the kernel of an idea.  In a funded arrangement such as government, perhaps constituents or Ministers have started to push for funding.  If we get to the stage we are going to open the doors for business, we have reached…

Infancy.  An enterprise is born.  The game is now viability, which is going to require people using what is provided, and enough funding either through invoices or grants to become sustainable.  Do it well enough, we might hit the glorious stage of “this is really working”, which is when we go into…

Go-Go.  These are great times.  Lots of action, another ‘sale’ or client helped, recognition, the world of opportunity.  Extension of services or markets are looked into, and the group feels alive.

Then, gradually, we feel the first cracks.  Issues between people appear, conflict arises, then someone suddenly realises that those expenses have started to creep up above the money coming in.   Turnover is rocketing…but money is running out.  What’s happened is we have entered….


Just like real adolescence, this is turmoil.  We have the bedrock of a successful business, yet we are in danger of not surviving either due to talent leaving, or running out of funding.  In Adizes language, we are very effective as we are delivering what our clients want.  But we are not efficient in doing it as it is taking too much resource to do this.

These are two thing that often happen.

Founders Trap

The founder, owner or CEO takes on even more responsibility.  With things not looking good, they involve themselves even more.  Decisions must go through this one point, which means they both slow down as well as start to appear to be somewhat arbitrary.  We eventually hit breaking point….and we explode as we get engulfed by the Founders Trap.

Early Death

The other common path is the need for systemisation is identified, often employing an Administrator, Financial Controller or COO into a role.  They attempt to get things organised, introducing procedures and forms for everything….and no one likes it.  People then yearn for the way things were and go straight to the boss, and the boss either takes control again…causing the Founders Trap explosion….or they insist on the forms and procedures.   As the spirit gradually drains from the enterprise as everything now needs to be checked off and approved….we encounter Early Death.


Or…to Prime!

But….there’s a way through.  And that way is designed to get us to what Adizes calls Prime – the situation where we are sufficiently organised and systemised so our profit and/or funding levels are sustainable….and we still serve our clients and develop into new areas with spirit. We are efficient and effective in the short and long-term.

How is this done?  I refer to it as being “systemised just enough”.   Getting just clear enough on strategy, structure and systems (how things work) so these make getting the work done easier.  Like organising the cutlery draw – it’s just better for everyone. 

And how do we get systemised just enough?  By ensuring that those that will be in the system are involved in designing that system.   This is the fundamental.  I like to introduce relevant models or frameworks to help groups to better understand their situation and ensure conversations  and decisions are effective, but the key is who is invited to the room.

Systemised just enough.  That’s what we want.

We Were Going Good…What Happened?

Enterprises don’t need to know the Business Lifecycle to be successful any more than Kurt Cobain needed to understand musical theory to write the brilliant melodies that made Nirvana awesome.  Many have successfully negotiated Adolescence to get to Prime, even if it was painful.

Yet as many businesses continue to be successfully and grow…it can be feel like they have slipped back to Adolescence again.

This is true….sort of.  But what’s happening is….

What this shows is that the business has entered a new stage – the larger black curve to the left.  Due to its complexity, which comes from its size, the number of services, the type of market it’s in…ultimately the number of connections…it is now playing on a larger curve.  And on that large curve….it is back in Adolescence again.

What’s required is another transformation to reach Prime at the new stage of complexity.  We are again going to need changes to structure, how systems work, and ensure the strategy remain viable in the environment we now find ourselves in.

All off this is hard work…but completely possible.

Bringing it Home

What’s crucial is we use the insights of Adizes to realise that when we are in these situations…we are not failing!  It’s the exact opposite.

The only failure would be to not recognise the work needed to change to that new level.  And then to try do that alone.

We can use the Business Lifecycle to see the natural problems that will come next…and then work together to continue to make our enterprises valuable to all involved.

Remember – just enough systemisation and involve those who will be using those systems in designing them.

Now, over to you.

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