When growing your company, avoid sprawl

Growth spurts are not the easiest things to manage. Ask any parent of any tween-ager. Or any business owner who woke up one morning and realized that overnight his or her business just doubled.

I’ve been through that process a few times over the years. And “process” isn’t really a word I can use to describe what I’ve gone through – not with a straight face anyway. It’s a rodeo. No, that’s not it. Carnival, maybe? Not quite. I’m thinking it’s something more akin to the running of the bulls – except there’s 1,000 bulls and I’m their only target on an vastly narrow, exceedingly short street.

On February 1, Triple Strength more than doubled. I haven’t worked out the actual percentage, but counting bodies and dollars, I’m good enough at math to see there are more than twice as many employees as before, and more than double the revenue on the books.

And, since that big day, we’ve added more people to the team, and more clients to the rolls. I don’t expect this particular growth spurt to abate anytime soon. (I know. Holy crap! I was thinking the exact same thing.)

Business growth is awesome to behold, in a scary sorta way. Not only do you have to deal with entirely new sets of circumstances (more people, more equipment, more clients, more deadlines), but you have to ensure current clients are 100-percent satisfied, and the current team is fully engaged and totally on board with what’s happening around them.

But take heart – it gets worse.

Over my 30-odd-year career, I’ve found myself in this exact position over and over again. Often, I was the entrepreneur dreamer who concocted the crazy scheme that actually worked – producing a giant-sized clusterwank that we all saw coming and somehow didn’t anticipate. Just as often, I was the guy Corporate hired to come in and fix the giant-sized clusterwank that cost my predecessor his sanity.

From these experiences, I’ve figured out precisely where growth goes off the proverbial rails in almost EVERY case. (Seriously, it happens this way so often that it should be a cliche!) I can describe it in a single word:


SprawlSprawl, for the record, is NOT growth. It is an impediment to growth. It is the number one reason exponential growth causes more harm than good for so many companies. If I haven’t been clear enough, sprawl is something you want to avoid. So, what is it?

My friend on the planning commission might say “sprawl is what you call the person who builds their house behind you.” For illustrative purposes, that’s not too far off the mark.

Imagine your company can be expressed on a graphic with two intersecting lines, one vertical and one horizontal. The vertical line represents the direction a company should grow. Sprawl is represented by the horizontal line.

When you experience rapid growth – particularly when your sales force closes a lot of business in a relatively short span – the inclination is to add bodies to increase capacity and handle the expanded workload. If you’re a manufacturer, that means line labor. If you’re a creative agency, that means artists, programmers and copywriters. It almost NEVER means adding new managers, adjusting the chain-of-command or taking a strategic look at company leadership. So, the company’s organizational chart doesn’t really change. It just gets wider.

That’s sprawl.

I haven’t found a perfect one-size-fits-all ratio where sprawl ends and real growth begins. But you can be sure that if your organization chart is wider than it is taller, your business isn’t growing like it should. It can’t grow like it should. Why? Because the same infrastructure that handled things pretty well at HALF the size is not optimized for double the workload, double the people, half the available time to get it done.

Sure, your folks are team players, and they’ll step up and do what it takes to get through. But doing whatever it takes is NOT managing growth. That’s sucking it up and hoping things get better. But hope is not a strategy!

So, you find yourself facing phenomenal growth, overworked employees, and a bunch of new folks rapidly onboarded to handle a massive influx of new business. The time for sitting back and strategizing about sustainable, long-term growth is past.

Now what?

NewTraction400-2There are myriad models for catching your breath and figuring this stuff out. Gino Wickman’s Traction is a pretty solid compilation of them – along with his own secret sauce, of course. (Full disclosure: I’ve read the book and participated in Traction meetings, but I am not a client or paid spokesperson. I just happen to like the book.)

I undertand – you need answers right now. Not 10 chapters from now. So here’s how I recommend you proceed to regain control of your company and start growing in the right direction:

  1. Growth starts at the top, not the bottom. Gather your senior leaders and take a hard look at the company’s organizational chart. Is everyone doing the right job? I once took over a newspaper operation where, due to growth and personnel expansion, the business manager was also an ad sales rep who reported to the advertising manager, who reported to the business manager. (No, really.)
  2. Delegate as much as possible. What tasks/responsibilities can each member of the leadership team offload to a subordinate? This is critical to vertical growth! Each time you delegate responsibility, you raise the proverbial bar. You allow your employees to advance, and they in turn elevate you – and the company – to new heights.
  3. Don’t be afraid to change. How much restructuring you should consider depends on the amount of sprawl you need to corral. The thing to keep in mind is that vertical growth means maximizing every employee’s potential – and with that your company’s profitability. The tighter your vertical growth, the leaner, more efficient, more profitable your company will be.

Author TripleStrength

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