3 Mistakes during growth


Taming the Chaos: Addressing 3 Common Mistakes in Growing Organizations

Growth is a central purpose of every business.

(Not as a substitute for a compelling mission.)

As a mandate for survival.

Whether your company is 50, 500 or 50,000 people; public, private or non-profit, your stakeholders expect you will expand your impact, continuously.

Whether through the pursuit of technology innovation, mergers, old-fashioned organic expansion … or a combination, all growing organizations face similar challenges:

  1. Ensuring people you need to execute, are clear and aligned about the direction, mission and values.
  2. Stabilizing and scaling operations, while everything in the environment is changing.
  3. Responsibly ensuring leaders at every level are accountable to the right priorities.

There are a few common mistakes nearly all growing organizations make, that predict chaos and attrition of great people.  These mistakes result from commonly  misunderstood (and mis-practiced) communication and leadership principles.

Mistake #1:  “We Have Clarity”   

In two decades of interviews with employees during big changes, we commonly ask this question:

“What is the mission (or strategy or vision) of your company?

It is RARE to hear the same answer. Even when a huge investment has been made in company communication. Leaders are often surprised, citing robust and fancy communication programs.

“WHY are people not hearing it?”

Which sometimes also raises the conversation about WHY true “Clarity” (especially about direction) is so important – especially during change.

If leaders don’t agree on the definition of success and the current priorities, how are employees going to execute it? (especially in an environment of change, when fears and insecurities are heightened.)

The dictionary defines Clarity as:

  • clearness or lucidity as to perception or understanding; freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity.
  • the state or quality of being clear or transparent to the eye.

Clarity is an extremely potent enabler (or disabler) of growing organizations, that can adapt quickly to change. Clarity creates engagement and emotional connectivity, when done well.

Clarity is also a deep human need, honed by tribal fireside chats over thousands of years.

The key to Clarity being a positive, engaging force in growing organizations, is realizing “perception and understanding” are not the same as “message delivered.”

Consider this common brain teaser.  What do you see?

If you have seen this picture before (ie, knowing there are at least two clear images) you can shift your perception to see an old woman and a young woman.

However, at first glance, most of us see one or the other. We don’t look more deeply unless prompted.

Like the filters you choose for an Instagram post … Communication is viewed differently depending on the filters of the creative and diverse human minds that exist in your organization.

The biggest mistake in Clarity, is believing “We’ve told them … it’s done.”

The more you need people to understand and accept change to create value or ROI, the more you must communicate consistently. Through multiple channels and media. Consider clarity an act of building trust, resulting in shared agreement and understanding that “We are in this together.”  Communicating once, one-way, does not create shared understanding and acceptance of change – especially in growing organizations. Clarity is a dialogue based on shifts and changes and feedback from customers, competitors, and employees.

Lack of clarity is a primary reason for the epidemic of disengaged, apathetic workers who show up and run through their day on auto-pilot. “Why should I care; it’s going to change tomorrow and I have no control over it.”

All too commonly, leaders believe their perception and understanding equals the SAME perception and understanding as everyone else. (This is almost never the case.)

This belief  – even when supported by smart, savvy communication efforts – is pervasive in the age of information overload. The bigger the audience you are communicating with, the more diverse the interpretation.

John Kotter, the Harvard professor who has written and taught about leading organizational change for decades, famously said “Major change is usually impossible unless most employees are willing to help, to the point of making short term sacrifices. But people will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they think the potential benefits of change are attractive and unless they really believe that a transformation is possible.  Without credible communication, and a LOT of it, employees’ hearts and minds are never captured. Leaders typically under-communicate by a factor of 10 (or 100 or even 1,000) during change.” (excerpt from Leading Change, 1996, by John P. Kotter.)

In a big change such as a merger, IPO, or massive marketplace shift, desire to engage is clouded by the Human Factor. During change, people are clouded by fear and uncertainty – sometimes without even realizing it.  Lack of clear, definitive answers from leaders who are avoiding tough decisions or trying to keep options open “to see how things play out” CAUSES confusion – and attrition of good people.

Clarity is clearing the fog.

You can’t clear someone else’s fog. That happens by them changing their mind. Which is a process of building trust, not creating spin.

Consider these 3 Clarity practices:

  1. Tap emotional connection through stories and dialogue, versus sole reliance on traditional PowerPoint and one-way fact-based communications, emphasizing logic and linear steps. (although that is good to do too.)
  2. Share tough news directly and early. Be clear what is known and unknown. Employees deserve to hear news of their company before it hits social media.
  3. Deepen the relationship between two essential and interactive elements of Clarity:

My Value  ∞  Company Value

Organizations with high levels of clarity are in continuous dialogue, at every level, about:

  1. What is OUR UNIQUE VALUE in the marketplace,
  2. What MY value is as a team member / contributor (how I support #1),
  3. What WINNING looks like, here.

This is achieved through ongoing, passionate dialogue  – because like everything in the world today, clarity is a dynamic, living and moving force. It is not achieved with check-the-box communication programs that emphasize words and facts over images, feelings, and conversation.

For many years I’ve conducted sessions with leadership teams in a Retreat setting, to hone in on (or refresh) their Mission and Values.

I have noticed that no matter the company size, industry, or level of players, there is one consistent truth: The addictive phenomenon of “word-smithing.”  I used to marvel at how much time executive level leaders will spend deciding about the EXACT words – debating and arguing about the meaning of THE or AND – sometimes for hours (or months).

Then I realized, this IS how they are building emotional connection to the mission or vision. This is how they create clarity and alignment; build shared understanding.  (and sometimes it is just a sign they are tired of hard decisions.)

Words are not Clarity.

Words are the ROAD to Clarity … but they won’t create Clarity until everyone is engaged in the conversation.

Mistake #2:  “We Need to Drive Greater Accountability”

Accountability is one of the most misunderstood terms in business.  Almost always used to describe “what others need to do or not do.”

(Rarely used to describe ME lacking accountability.)

The first mistake organizations make, is believing Accountability is – and should be – automatically conveyed with title and job responsibility.

Accountability is defined as “the obligation to report, explain or justify something – responsible and answerable.”

Often, organizations translate this into “who can we come down on or punish, when something goes wrong?”

Accountability is about learned initiative and coaching to help a person realize their full potential. If it does not exist, the problem is a leadership and coaching issue, rather than a personal failure.  (And sure, some people – even with great coaching – will never get there, or are in the wrong roles.)

The second mistake organizations make, is assuming it is realistic to hold one person accountable for the actions of 50 direct reports. In today’s matrix, lean management structures, hierarchy is being challenged and replaced by more distributed, faster-moving decision structures. Accountability must be about principled leadership and coaching at every level. It’s teaching people to step up and solve problems, at every level. Especially at the front lines of the business, where empowerment is essential to serving the customer.

People can only accept accountability for their results is if they are clear what results are most important. (Clarity again!). And, that they care about those results.

In his book “The Advantage,” Patrick Lencioni makes a case for how organizational health trumps everything else in business.  He describes Accountability as the OUTCOME of trust, healthy conflict and commitment.

What organizations must do to improve accountability

  1. Drive clarity. First and foremost. Always. Continuously. (If you hire people who want to win and grow, Clarity is fanning the flame.)
  2. Model Accountability at the top. The Leadership Team that visibly models accountability, creates a culture that does so more naturally. This means 3 things: Skill in having the hard conversations, reaching agreement.  And, once decisions are made as a Team, the discipline not to throw your colleagues under the bus – even if you believe they are wrong.
  3. Acceptance of personal responsibility for RESULTS at every level. This does take skill and training. Accountability is not perfection; it is acceptance that problems and mistakes always exist if you are moving at the speed of change.  It’s about taking ownership to fix things, not blaming.  “Reasons why we can’t” will always exist. Reasons are the weakest link in business. “There is always a way.”

Mistake #3:  Fast Wins the Race.

A common wisdom about high performance I’ve taught for years, always generation lively dialogue. Mostly because it flies in the face of modern times:

“Go Slow to Go Fast.”

Any marathon runner or competitive athlete knows that winning means pacing yourself. You need talent, a goal, training, yes.  And, well-timed sprints are essential, when mixed with the discipline of pacing.

This wisdom is as sound for high performing teams and organizations, as for winning athletes.

Yet, an all-too-common mistake in organizations during growth, is to pile on complexity and speed without a conscious effort to narrow the focus to what is really most important.  This kills energy and momentum! Businesses are too often bloated by the weight of competing priorities, unrealistic deadlines, and decision paralysis (“waiting on other department approvals.”)

Do the right stuff – not ALL the stuff

If you have ever eaten at a buffet, you have experienced “eyes bigger than stomach” phenomenon. Plate piled higher than the Eiffel Tower, you realize “I can’t eat all this!” (Then you eat it, return for seconds, and nap the afternoon away in a food coma.)

Now, imagine the buffet phenomenon magnified by 100 or 1000 or 10,000 people. The plates are loaded by the top team with relentless consistency. The cascade effect means managers and directors are trying to digest 6 buffets from leaders hell-bent on moving “at the speed of competition.” Hello Project Coma!

Organizations without the discipline of “Go Slow to Go Fast”  literally slows progress.

(How well does YOUR mind work after that 3rd trip to the buffet?).

Next to a boss who is inconsistent, mean or unfair – nothing is more demoralizing to people than working on a project you KNOW will never be launched, and having the plug pulled suddenly without explanation.

If the organization is effective, prioritizing is like a RIVER not a LANDFILL – an ongoing, moving and dynamic flow. It requires skilled discussions, which must be cultivated at the very top. This discipline is cascaded throughout the entire business and involves everyone, at least 1-2 times a year.  There is a sensitivity (and process) to ensuring that top talent are given new, exciting opportunities to contribute. Not weighted down trying to digest too many fully loaded plates.

Distributed teams and ruthless prioritization is the skill behind “Go Slow to Go Fast” – getting the rhythm of sprints versus pacing just right.

Take the time as a leadership team to establish aligned priorities every quarter across the business.

Ensure you have the hard debates at the top to grow, end, or pause projects.

Focus people’s attention and energy … versus piling the organizational plate into a Project Coma.

The best leaders understand that their job today, is to make sense of change. To lead in ways that create engaged followers who care about the business. Anything less is just opening the door for your competitors to beat you. (Uber, anyone?)

Clarity.  Accountability.  Pacing Speed.  Get your groove on!


Our virtual Modern Culture Academy teaches tool for achieving Clarity, Accountability, Collaborative leadership, and other essential topics of changing and growing organizations. Please consider joining us; next class begins soon!


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