Challenging Assumptions About Growth

Double our membership.  
Increase conference attendance by 50%. 
Triple non-dues revenue in five years.

These are a few of the growth goals I have heard tossed about in strategy conversations over the years.  If there is one common interest or goal of organizations it is getting more people or more money.

But to what end?  And at what potential cost?  Amazingly, organizations often fail to explore the short- and long-term consequences (positive and negative) of having more. Too many groups put growth goals ahead of any real strategy, a shortcoming explored in this excellent strategy + business article.

People often have strong mental models about growth.  Mine is simple: growth should enable accelerated progress on an organization’s mission and vision.  Simply getting bigger to be bigger is not strategic enough in my eyes.

When facilitating conversations about growth, the two initial questions I usually pose are:  (1) What mission-related results will more _____ (members, volunteers, conference attendees, monies, etc.) help make possible?  (2) What are the possible trade-offs involved if this growth is pursued and/or realized? 

In terms of negative consequences, organizations that pursue explosive growth sometimes fall prey to the following:

  1. Inadequate competence or capacity to scale their efforts.
  2. Incomplete criteria and/or processes for evaluating potential growth opportunities, be they partnerships or new programs.
  3. Insufficient shared clarity around what truly constitutes the organization’s core and its historic success, brand value, and market position and differentiators.

The issues raised in the three points above sometimes cause an organization to pursue opportunities that promise significant enhanced revenue streams, but are not fully aligned with its core values, market position, or competencies.

The potential negative consequences of this are several, including:

  • Diminished quality control on their existing successes which in turn can reduce market interest/demand for these programs or services, creating new financial pressures for growth.
  • Fragmenting their identity in the marketplace as prospects and/or long-term partners wonder “why are they doing that?”
  • Pursuing new opportunities because of convenience, timing, or personalities of those advocating for an idea versus thoughtful and consistent application of evaluation criteria.

Decision-making conversations shift from what the organization should do based on core values and strategy to what the organization could do based on available opportunities and the ease of implementing them.

None of this happens overnight; none of it is usually irreversible.  

All of it likely can be avoided by proactively addressing the three points previously outlined before launching major growth initiatives and/or new programs. 

To do so, I find it effective to have staff, board members, and other volunteers discuss and apply the following observations and frameworks for organizational strategy. Notice how they differ somewhat in content and tone from traditional (and too often predictable) goal-setting. 

I invite you to try them on for size in your own discussions about strategic direction and growth.