Or "de-grow" like Benjamin Button ...
When I say I'm a growth strategist, most people instantly assume I'm referring to business growth. The word “growth” has become associated with fast, wealth-driven economies, and when perceived in a less favourable light, is taken as sucking the life out of our planet. Some groups are actually advocating to "de-grow" but the term sounds almost unnatural.
Life in any form is, after all, about growth and change until it dies. If we don't like the focus of the growth we are pursuing, then what are we doing to re-think the one we want to see, in whatever context?
Cherry Laurels and Us
Walking in the forest yesterday, I spotted a notice warning us about the threat of “Laurier Caucase” or Cherry Laurel. Cherry Laurel is a beautiful dark evergreen shrub that has creamy white flowers and tiny cherry-like fruits that makes it highly popular as a decorative garden hedge. Its dense foliage also makes for an effective screen from prying eyes.
The downside to this plant is that it’s invasive and poisonous. According to the notice, when left to its own, it will take over the forest floor and kill off any native shrubs, even tall canopy trees as it easily reaches 10 metres. Highly resilient and tolerant to most conditions, it rapidly grows 30 to 60 centimetres a year which help it propagate and outcompete to dominate any foreign habitat.
It made me think of us as a natural species. Human beings have become the dominant and even poisonous species to some extent for natural ecosystems that get in our way, especially when we go all out to compete and control our growth interests. The only other living organism that appears to do that better than human beings is a virus like the coronavirus-2, the trigger to our recent 18 months of global gloom.
It’s no surprise that a pushback movement to this has adopted the term, “degrowth” over the last decade. I understand the intent but my head just can't wrap itself around the concept. I mean, can I believe that Benjamin Button is for real? It's a paradox that defies our very evolution as nature's creatures.
Nevertheless, the pandemic lockdown has made this call louder from some quarters and I can’t say I blame them. For the last year, unless you work in healthcare or critical industries, many of us have seen life slow down in general. We’ve had more quality time with family, and the focus has been on caring and wellbeing. Most of us are paying better attention to staying fit. Some have gotten into healthy home-cooking. Others have picked up a spade to try their hand at gardening, for example.
With less outside commitments and distractions, we’ve found time to re-discover that life can be simpler, slower. We've experienced a difference, opening up to new horizons of learning. As much as we clamour for the freedom of physical connections again, and rejoice as shops and commerce resume brisk business, who among us is not secretly hoping some of that slowing down will continue on in the "new normal"?
However, the reason we are starting to get a sense of normalcy is ironically due to the speed of COVID vaccine developments, including the new mRNA technology. That rollout was only possible because of our capability and capacity to re-purpose investment, innovate and change focus when given the right impetus and conditions.
Those conditions were about urgency and they offered opportunities to advance faster in biotechnology and health sciences with new wealth of knowledge and financial gains. The impetus was about reducing human suffering and death rates, but also maintaining a way of life with some certainty. Without the vaccines, this would have been harder to do.
So how can growth, fast or otherwise be bad? It's not.
Lessons By A Client
Some years ago, I was engaged to help a software company analyze their market and define a positioning strategy that would take them into international markets. Nothing exceptional there. It was a clear ask out of a desire to be a global player and generate new revenue sources. The difficulties came later.
In parallel to shaping the market vision and strategy with the founders, I was assessing their readiness to make the change they wanted. It became obvious that envisioning something and knowing where they need to go was not the same as making it happen. Despite excellent feedback and buy-in on everything I delivered in the initial phase, they sat on the strategy and global roadmap for almost two months. They had ambition and wanted change badly enough. They also had all the makings of a high-growth startup. They just didn’t have the relevant mindset to go with it as a team and company, and there were numerous internal tensions that simmered under the surface.
For the next year and a few years after that, the focus of my work with them was on management, leadership and operational measures based on a growth mindset to get them going. That included coaching and advising them through the difficulties they perceived, persisting through obstacles to focus on the objective, and experimenting with processes and delivery models. It also meant helping them increase deal size with portfolio streamlining, product pricing and models, as well as transform team performance with talent and tool capacity-building.
It was a lot to handle for the management and the team leads. We went through a few choppy phases to get through the messiness, discords, sleepless nights, starts and stops, dead-ends, but started to see small wins. I drew a couple of valuable lessons from it.
Firstly, where I envisioned they could be took almost five years and none of the changes were linear and could be rushed. Deadlines were missed on a regular basis and the product roadmap and rollouts were more than touch-and-goes for over two years. They were re-learning a whole different mindset, including understanding talent-skills fit as much as product-market fit.
Secondly, seeing their potential, ambition and achieved growth, I later tried to nudge them towards international investors with relevant industry connections. Although they initially followed along, they decided not to go that route despite several solicitations by noteworthy investors. They had figured out that retaining the independence they always prized was more important. There was a deeper sense of aligned ownership between the founders and in turn, responsibility to their people. They wanted to uphold certain human-centric values that had gotten them started and being a venture-funded startup didn’t fit with staying true to them. I understood then that they were choosing a different kind of growth.
Today, the company has come into their own. The last I heard, they grew almost three times the industry rate and more than quadrupled their revenues from when I first engaged with them. They also started offering a revenue-sharing scheme to their people. From the outside, they had grown relatively fast but their inner transformation was more of a zig-zag transition. Some things happened incrementally, some others radically, but all were on their own terms.
Our Impetus for Growth
Our problem is not growth itself but the drivers for that growth. Up till recently for the most part, they have been ingrained in the belief that only the strong survive because we live in a “dog eat dog world”. These concepts were birthed in a time of mass industrialization of the 19th century when most people were largely poor and in ill-health. Physical energy was everything then while the comforts of life were far and few. Most jobs were drudging manual labor over long hours as electricity, machines and transportation stretched time. Life expectancy was barely 40 years.
The innovations and changes that followed solved for that. They led to a period when most necessities were no longer made at home but massively manufactured. To be able to buy factory-made soap or dress became a symbol of financial emancipation and a sustainable livelihood. More wealth also meant greater means to innovate and develop other aspects of life, like the eradication of diseases, better public infrastructure, schooling for all and so forth.
They were solutions for challenges born of a different era. The latter part of the 20th century prospered on this basis with a population boom and the rise of the middle classes. It’s easy to think that we were indomitable, at least before COVID landed. We’ve never lived longer, been higher educated, closely connected or more innovative on a global scale than in the last 30 years.
At the same time, we are besieged by all sorts of mental health issues, unprecedented societal and workplace distrust (see the chart from the Edelman Trust Barometer above), wastage from over-consumption, and questionable industry practices. By far the worst, we’re destroying our natural habitat and resources faster than any other species have.
We are becoming the Cherry Laurels of our planet. As a society, we’ve become all but single-minded in accumulating control and wealth in the shortest period to the exclusion of other more humane growth aspects.
We encourage our children to be good students so they can be whatever they want to be – at least that’s what we tell them. However, if they choose to become a firefighter or a farmer, we can’t help but be disappointed that all that investment into higher education went to “waste”. A study in the US asking parents what they wanted their children to be had the beautiful response of “caring”. Yet when their children were asked what the parents expected of them, the answers were good results and getting into college. That’s a big discrepancy from the espoused values and teachings.
In organizations and companies, it’s no better. We tell our employees they matter because the company is as good only as they are. But so much emphasis is on getting ahead that very little attention goes into designing thriving work systems and workplaces or being vigilant about work-related stress and employee wellbeing that impacts overall performance and productivity.
Since the abrupt switch to remote work and WFH during periods of lockdown, we are starting to see huge cracks in some of these failings. We almost have COVID to thank for raising our awareness and perhaps, even reconnecting us with our empathetic side.
Rethinking Our Quest for Growth
Albert Einstein famously said,
If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
What we’ve been doing is resorting to one solution or the most obvious one – that of continued wealth generation for all our problems because our whole system has been designed and built that way. This was the solution from the industrialized age and from policies that fed socioeconomic developments of the last century.
The quality of human life we solved for has made immense strides, but we still act like we need more of the same. There are exceptions of course (like in my client's case) and this kind of outlier thinking needs to be encouraged and made aware of.
Almost every natural dwelling on earth is populated by diverse organisms, including humans. Yet, when we create and build organizations, we turn them into machines or species like the Cherry Laurels, demanding only one dominant kind of growth – wealth generation and controls. With these kinds of problems today, this zero-sum game of winning at the cost of all else will only tip the already fragile balance of our ecosystem over and set us back in terms of true progress.
In fact, if we look at how certain IT workers are being treated today, it feels like a repetition of the exploitative garment sweatshops of old, just in more sanitized conditions. They work at monotonous and repetitive tasks in front of digital screens, sitting for long dreary hours without quality breaks, and are demanded to report on activity input and output, rather than true value outcomes.
Things are starting to change and new innovations are in play all over the world, from more flexible worklife, to building workforce equity and inclusion as well as better workplace standards; from renewable energy to sustainable farming and social entrepreneurships. But how fast are these transitions taking place? My guess is not fast enough.
So rather than saying we don’t want growth or we want to slow down growth, can we ask instead, what kind of growth we want, knowing the unprecedented challenges we have? Then, how much do we want to make it happen?
As the findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer above show, there is no better opportunity than now to come together for this dialogue. We may not all need to get behind changing the world, but I'm sure we must want to change the different ways we desire to grow and flourish.
Therefore, if we focus hard enough on asking the right questions to understand the problems, maybe we'll spark greater innovations that actually give us solutions suited for today's and tomorrow's challenges, not yesterday's. The question is what does that mean for you (wherever you are), and how will you take steps to be part of them?
In the word question, there is a beautiful word - quest. I love that word. We are all partners in a quest. The essential questions have no answers. You are my question, and I am yours - and then there is dialogue. The moment we have answers, there is no dialogue. Questions unite people. - Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peach Prize Winner and holocaust survivor.