Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
London Business School

Too much of a good thing

We know companies can grow too fast; it gets out of hand, they lose control and, eventually, the whole thing comes tumbling down. My favourite examples are still the ancient case of People Express in the 1980s (one of the first, and initially most successful low-cost airlines ever) and, a few years ago, Dutch retailer Ahold.

However, companies can also try too hard to grow. Hence, it is not that there’s too much growth; there’s no growth at all and that’s precisely because they are trying to hard! Let me explain.

Pretty much everyone attempts to grow. And when we look at different “strategies for growth” – that is, where can growth come from – we usually get presented a list of options: You can diversify, innovate, add new products to your portfolio; partnerships can help you grow, etc. Do these well, and the resulting factor will be growth.

However, what we are often inclined to overlook is that growth in and of itself is simply a lot of work. That is, even when just doing more of the same thing – without adding company partnerships, innovations or diversifying into adjacent businesses – growth taxes a firm’s management capacity. For example, you have to find and manage new customer relationships, add distribution capacity, recruit and train new people and business leaders, develop management systems for a larger organisation and workforce, etc. Growing a firm is a heck of lot of work.

Yet, the options to bring about further growth (innovations, partnerships, etc.) tax your management capacity too. Finding and maintaining new collaborations is a lot of work and requires much attention. So does managing the process of innovation, and developing and commercialising its output. Diversification, internationalization and acquisitions equally are a lot of work; you have to get to know new markets, products and customers; you have to work on integration and a newly formed organisational structure, manage increasingly complex management processes, etc. Doing all of it might just be too much of a good thing.

In a recent research project I evaluated the growth rate of firms in the Chinese pharmaceutical industry. This industry is turbulent and fast-changing, with a lot of entry and exit into the market. There are large potential pay-offs, but the ongoing changes in the country’s economy, population and medical system also make it unpredictable. It’s a market with lots of opportunity for growth, but also quite a brutal one in terms of the uncertainty of how to do this.

I measured to what extent firms in this industry engaged in various strategic vehicles aimed at fostering growth: Diversification into adjacent markets, innovation, establishing partnerships and adding new product lines to one’s portfolio. The results showed that, in isolation, each of these initiatives indeed stimulated growth; yet when used excessively or in combination they actually had a negative impact and hampered a firm’s growth prospects.

Hence, stop trying so hard! You might do better…

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4 Comments for “Too much of a good thing”

  • Wally Bock says:

    Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star

    Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

    Wally Bock

  • Anonymous says:

    I read your article with interest. While you emphasize the work aspect you need to talk about the failings of HR who still put boring middle of the road box tickers into positions to deliver your proposed strategy. Down with HR I say!!!

  • Bruce Temkin says:

    Great research. Your findings match a basic lesson I learned as a kid: Less is better.

    There are two constraints that organizations have that are almost always underappreciated. The first is limited management capacity, as you discuss. The second constraint is the ability for an organization to absorb change.

    All too often, leaders focus on only one constraint: funding. Hopefully your research will show executives that success takes more than just money.

  • Harold says:

    In my experience, growth is problematic when management doesn’t know precisely what to grow.

    Some managers seek top line growth. Others seek bottom line growth.

    I’ve seen managers measure growth by looking at the number of product lines they offer. I’ve seen others measure growth in terms of the number of markets in which they operate.

    Things seem to grow particularly “messy” when:
    a) Different managers within the same company use different growth measures;
    b) Top management changes growth measures from one financial reporting period to the next.


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