Recently a client told me I have a "no such thing as a growth hack" speech.

She explained that on several occasions, I've pushed back when she's suggested a course of action that doesn't really reflect the reality in her fast growth start-up.

Thinking about this, I realised I do have a tendency to rail against things in scaling businesses that look like easy shortcuts.

This diagram does a great job of explaining why many formulaic approaches to business scaling are ineffective:

It comes from a brilliant book called "The Wiggly World of Organization: Muddling Through with Purpose, Courage and Skill” by Chris Rodgers.

My simple summary is:

  • Businesses are complex systems.
  • These complex environments are where founders or execs in scaling businesses operate.
  • Leadership means taking the best possible next step at each point in time given what a founder knows / feels / senses in the moment.
  • But when humans look back, they post-rationalise the steps they took with the benefit of hindsight.
  • They falsely identify a logic and rationality they didn't have in the moment.
  • Researchers take these post-rationalised experiences and look for patterns.
  • These patterns get codified into models that are attractive in their simplicity for people leading businesses.
  • But these models ignore the original complexity of the situations that leaders dealt with in the first place - so they are built on sand.

And that's why you should ignore prescriptive models for growth and change.

They fail to acknowledge the contextual and emergent nature of good leadership practice, pretending instead that life is rational and predictable.

Chris talks about the flawed nature of "their apparent promise of ‘if you do this, you’ll get that’ certainty, predictability and control". Amen to that.

That's not to say we can't learn from others' stories and experiences.

I love hearing how other people succeeded or failed in the situations they faced.

But the abstraction of these experiences into models that ignore past context is where things go awry.

For founders who are scaling their businesses, the lesson here is about growth models that are too specific or formulaic.

If you're looking at a model that's promises "do this, get that", then that's something to be super careful about.

But models in business that are flexible and malleable can be really helpful.

They provide helpful scaffolding for our thinking about how to grow businesses.

They help founders organise their thoughts and create clarity for their teams.

And that's all my founder client is seeking to do in her work.

That's what I need to remind myself next time I reach for the "no such thing as a growth hack" speech.

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