The Goldilocks Zone of High-Growth Organizations
Once upon a time there was a founder. She started small with a high-powered team, but other people quickly became interested as her idea came to life. Soon she had an infusion of investment dollars that allowed—no, demanded—her company to grow at a breakneck pace. Her rapidly expanding team needed to make things happen quickly and that’s exactly what they did. It was equal parts thrilling and exhausting.
And then it happened: The team missed an important goal, and it became suddenly clear that the chaos had become too much.
She knew generally where she wanted her organization to go, but she realized that she’d never actually articulated that vision to her team and, more even problematically, she had been more focused on building her product than on operating an increasingly complex organization. And now, in the midst of crisis, she was frozen. Should she take the time to articulate a clear and detailed plan, knowing that her company’s situation was rapidly evolving? The whole exercise seemed futile and, besides, she was strapped for time. And what would a plan even look like? The only way to drive alignment and coordination in her now-sizeable team was to add more structure and make tough prioritization decisions, but wouldn’t that rob the company of its entrepreneurial spirit and stifle innovation? How could she decide what to do?
We have spent nearly four decades combined in the HR space (Andrew as a practitioner and Brad as an academic), with a good deal of that time focused on high-growth organizations. One especially pertinent thing we learned from these experiences is that most foundational “truths” in management practices are based on relatively large, mature, and stable organizations that don’t always jive with the unique context of organizations experiencing rapid growth. Change, and specifically the rate of change, is what sets apart high-growth organizations. For the founder in our story above, and countless others before her, the almost constant change feels a lot like chaos that can push us from one extreme to another almost overnight. The remedy often lies in finding the “Goldilocks Zone” for your organization: the not-too-hot-not-too-cold space between extremes that will help you balance out the tensions that arise during growth
This view is not always shared or talked about widely in the high-growth community. Indeed, the high-growth startup culture of Silicon Valley has lionized many extreme approaches based on half-truths from the “winners” while ignoring the far more common and critically important lessons from the “losers” (a phenomenon known as survivorship bias). Consider Facebook’s (now Meta’s) once famous motto of “move fast and break things,” which has been adopted in some form or another by a litany of startups. While we certainly agree that fast movement and growth can be the difference between success and failure in this context, there’s still a place for being smart and calculated. And, moreover, less talked about in the Facebook lore is their pivot to a more reasoned approach (see this also). Similarly, lost in the hype around the freewheeling grow-at-all-costs mindset of Blitzscaling is the acknowledgement that at some point even “pirates must become the Navy” and embrace order.
Below we offer a few thoughts for finding your Goldilocks Zone on three key pain points in the high growth space: (1) driving clarity amidst chaos; (2) enabling speed through structure; and (3) ruthlessly prioritizing.
1) Clarity amid Chaos
High-growth organizations have needs that change faster than a teenager’s moods, but allowing chaos to rule is unsustainable. You need at least some clarity at the highest levels to align your team, no matter their size. Running a team without sufficient clarity is like inviting your team onto a boat, asking them to row as quickly as they can, all while forgetting to tell them where they’re trying to go. You’ll get somewhere, no doubt, but probably not where you need to go…and with everyone frustrated along the way.
In high-growth organizations, achieving clarity can be tricky because you frequently need to adjust to changing conditions. Leaders sometimes use this as an excuse not to articulate a direction at all, but that can be dangerous. Rather than getting bogged down in a traditional mission/vision/values exercise that big corporations often put themselves through (often with the help of hefty consulting fees), try a lighter approach that can be updated as your organization encounters major milestones. One super simple approach that is often sufficient for earlier stage growth organizations is just to answer Patrick Lencioni’s six questions for clarity (from his book The Advantage), which are:
1. Why do we exist?
2. How do we behave?
3. What do we do?
4. How will we succeed?
5. What’s most important right now?
6. Who must do what?
Once high-level clarity is present, enlist HR as a critical partner to help spread clarity throughout other levels in the organization. Regular cadence is key here. Rapid growth means lots of new hires, all of whom will need, and appreciate, clarity. A general thumb is if you aren’t sick of saying it, you probably haven’t said it enough (click here for more on this issue).
2) Enabling Speed through Structure
There is a natural tension between structure and speed. In high-growth organizations, structure can’t always keep pace to support the changing context and conditions. Yet, the speed over structure mindset many organizations adopt, either intentionally or not, is unsustainable over time. Just like we saw in the opening story, something will break. Interestingly, in response to their first major “miss”, many organizations that were previously structure-averse overcorrect with rigid frameworks, overengineered processes, and ill-fitting practices that are “lifted and shifted” from more stable companies. Rather than settling the Goldilocks Zone, they swing dramatically from too cold to too hot.
Here, leaders need to apply some critical thinking when adopting new processes and structures. You don’t want to reinvent the wheel, for sure, but you also must recognize that what worked for a large, mature company may not be the best medicine for your company right now. All organizational structures have features that serve and features that limit the organization’s strategic pursuits. Finding the Goldilocks Zone is simply about finding processes and structures (not the structure) that provides a greater share of service than limitation. Here are three broad questions that can help guide your pursuit of the Goldilocks Zone related to structures and processes for your organization:
What outcome are we seeking from using this practice / process?
What makes this a good fit for our organization?
How might we be different from other organizations who have successfully applied this?
2) Ruthless Prioritization
During periods of rapid change, it is virtually impossible to get everything done. There are simply too many demands and too many stakeholders. To survive, leaders must adopt ruthless prioritization anchored in the company’s current reality. In other words, it’s easier to move 3 things a mile than 30 things an inch.
One key to finding the Goldilocks Zone of prioritization is to be able to distinguish between the urgent and the important. Here, we recommend using the classic Eisenhower Matrix tool (see below) to help identify the order in which the many things that might be on an individual or organizational to-do list should be tackled. Here, only those items that can be considered both urgent and important rise to the level of a strategic priority. Those that are less urgent but still important get scheduled, those that are urgent but not important get delegated, and everything else gets trimmed out.
Of course, your ability to effectively prioritize goes hand in hand with our discussion of clarity above. If you don’t know where you’re going and where you’re at, focusing on the right things becomes more of an exercise in chance versus strategy.
The Goldilocks Zone isn’t just for fairytales. When a high-growth organization can operate with the right amount of clarity, structure, and prioritization for their current season, friction goes down and results go up. For more support in finding the Goldilocks Zone for your organization, check out the resources below:
Andrew Bartlow & T. Brad Harris, PhD