Knowing When to Say NO to Growth

Posted on February 5, 2013


GrowthChartLike the sixth grade boy who is shorter than all of the girls in his class, we in leadership earnestly crave growth. The small business owner wants to grow his client base. The entrepreneur wants to grow her employee count. The Executive Director of the association wants to grow their membership. The Pastor wants to grow the church.  The CEO must see the corporation grow their market share. We all want to grow.

The heralded leaders among us are noted for a thirst for growth. Growth signals success. Growth means we are doing something right. Growth evidences leadership. Growth produces the desired results.  –Or does it?

In Jim Collins’ How the Mighty Fall, he outlines the five stages of decline organizations will go through on their way to oblivion. In Stage 2, The Undisciplined Pursuit of More, Collins puts the brakes on the relentless chase for growth as he shares research to indicate how organizational decline can result from a misguided obsession with growth.

I doubt anyone would become a best-selling author by writing a book on Refuse to Grow for Success. Yet, Collins does provide convincing arguments for why growth is not always the cure-all for organizations in either seasons of plenty or want.

More What?

Growth is more—more something. The problem is that those seeking growth don’t often pause to ask, “More what?” We assume we know where we need more. We assume we know what numbers need to climb up the chart. Yet, it’s the undisciplined pursuit of more—the blind pursuit of growth—that can kill an organization. Growth may not only NOT be the solution, it may become the problem.

I’ve seen non-profit organizations initially grow through a merger only to die a slow painful death because the culture which took the acquired organization into decline came with it and infected the acquiring organization. I’ve watched as business owners, eager to grow, pursue new business deals which would bring only a teaspoon of profit but drain their capacity for more profitable organic growth. Growth at any cost is not sensible.

While Collins offers words of caution on growth, he certainly does not deny the need for growth.  He writes: “The greatest leaders do seek growth—growth in performance, growth in distinctive impact, growth in creativity, growth in the people—but do they not succumb to growth that undermines long-term value.” Growth is needed, but not all finisher’s medals in the race for growth bring glory.

When faced with the opportunity for growth leaders must pause to ask critical questions before pushing start.

12 Questions to Ask Before Pursuing Any Growth Initiative

  1. If we achieve the growth will we remain on target with our purpose, mission and vision?
  2. Is the growth consistent with our core values?
  3. Will the growth be a cultural fit?
  4. Are we seeking growth in a field consistent with our core business?
  5. Is this growth in the right market?
  6. Will this growth bring profitability?
  7. Can we maintain excellence throughout the pursuit of growth?
  8. Does this growth give us a seat in an arena where we have a passion?
  9. What effect will this growth have on our current employees?
  10. Can we recruit enough of the right people, and quick enough, to manage the growth?
  11. Do we have the resources to successfully fund this growth?
  12. Is this growth motivated by hubris or selfish personal ambition at the expense of the long-term goals of the organization?

Growth beckons us. It calls us when we don’t find our name on the Top Whatever Business List. It cries out when it is our turn to report at the CEO Roundtable. Yet, wisdom says when faced with the opportunity to pursue growth, we must be able to resolve this question: Should we GO or should we say NO. Those who know when and how to choose the latter display an uncommon component of the most effective business acumen.


For additional insight on this topic, please see Jim Collin’s book, How the Mighty Fall and the article, How Not to Grow, by Alix Stuart.

Can you share examples of when you found it best to say No to growth? Share your comments and examples below.