As a leader in your organization, you’re under tremendous stress. Not only do you need to deliver against a “growth strategy” that demands constant increases in revenue and profit, but you also need to cut costs and support employees who are more disengaged and burned out than ever before.  If it feels like you’re working harder and running faster than ever to maintain the status quo, then I have good and bad news for you.

Bad news: You’re right. 

The feeling of working harder or moving faster simply to stay in the same place is called the Red Queen effect or hypothesis.  The hypothesis asserts “that species must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate in order to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing species.”  Its name is inspired by the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, who explains to Alice, “here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

You probably feel the same need to adapt to survive “while pitted against ever-evolving opposing species” every time you see new technologies, read about another new management framework, or hear news from your competitors. You also understand that your organization needs to grow and often hear that it needs to do so at all costs, so you buckle down, work hard, and pull off quarterly miracles.

Good for you! You’re reward?  You get to do it all over again, and faster, this quarter.  And, to add insult to injury, all that growth you’re working harder and harder to achieve is a mirage.

75% of companies do not grow.

HBS professor Gary P. Pisano examined the growth rate of 10,897 publicly held US companies between 1976 and 2019.  When adjusted for inflation, the top quartile grew 11.8% yearly, but the other 75% showed little to negative growth. 

Being in that top quartile was no guarantee of success, as only 15% (3% of the total sample) were able to sustain a growth rate of 0.3%+ for 30 years. In fact, only SEVEN companies—Walmart, UPS, Southwest, Publix, Johnson & Johnson, Danaher, and Berkshire Hathaway—were top-quartile growth companies throughout the thirty years studied.

If you worked at one of those 7 companies, congrats!  Your hard work delivered real and repeatable growth.  If you worked at any of the other 10,890, I hope they offer great benefits?

We know why.

Every good academic knows you can’t just throw out some data without trying to find a causal link, and Professor Pisano is a good academic

“I have found that while the usual explanations for slow or minimal growth—market forces and technological changes such as disruptive innovation—play a role, many companies’ growth problems are self-inflicted. Specifically, firms approach growth in a highly reactive, opportunistic manner. When market demand is booming, they go on hiring binges, throw resources at developing new capacity, and build out organizational infrastructure without thinking through the implications… In the process of chasing growth, companies can easily destroy the things that made them successful in the first place, such as their capacity for innovation, their agility, their great customer service, or their unique cultures. When demand slows, pressures to maintain historical growth rates can lead to quick-fix solutions such as costly acquisitions or drastic cuts in R&D, other capabilities, and training. The damage caused by these moves only exacerbates the growth problems.”

(Bold text added by me)

Good news: You Can Do Something About It

In fact, as a leader in your organization, you’re among the few who have any prayer of pulling your organization out of the Red Queen’s race and putting it on track to real and sustainable growth. Achieving this incredible success requires you (and your colleagues) to decide three things:

  1. How fast to grow (target rate of growth)
  2. Where to find sources of new demand (direction of growth)
  3. How to assemble the resources required to grow (method of growth)

Together, these three decisions comprise your growth strategy and enable your organization to achieve the “delicate balance” between demand and supply required to sustain profitable growth.

Getting to these decisions isn’t easy, but neither is slaying the Jabberwocky.  So, as this brief rest stop in your race comes to an end, who do you choose to be – Alice, who works hard and deals with a bit of nonsense to progress, or the Red Queen, content to work harder to stay in the same place?