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Small is the New Big: Scale Is Irrelevant to Growth

There’s a lot of urgent talk these days about the need to generate growth through expansion. It is as if the two are equivalent. There’s the demand for expansion of market share, and expansion of membership in associations and causes. The standard statement is: if we are not expanding, then we are not growing, and if we are not growing, then we are dying. (Implied: so get busy growing, you lazy, apathetic slobs!)

The Race to Scale is Killing Us

This mindset of expand or die creates untold stress and recrimination. When the expansion isn’t happening in the expected timeframe and the expected way people panic, and begin looking for blame. The inevitable question is: what’s wrong with you that this vital expansion isn’t happening? This must be fixed right now at the risk of certain death to our cause, our organization or our selves!

In truth, if anything is wrong at all, it is our belief that growth can only happen through outward expansion. The only growth that truly matters is internal. It takes up no space at all. It is creative. It is beyond all competition and comparison. It is priceless – and people will pay handsomely to be in its presence.

Nonetheless, society still equates size and speed with growth. The idea that might makes right is instilled in our DNA, it would seem. And we do so in the face of evidence that none of this is true. We speak about fast growth companies as the pinnacle of achievement – when in fact, fast growth companies crash four times faster than their “slow and steady” counterparts. Businesses and their investors support the mindset: bigger profit equals success and growth, while our society is experiencing unprecedented levels of stress-related health issues that ultimately make that sort of growth meaningless. The idea that bigger is better is old news.

Big is Exhausting

Slowly, individuals are setting the idea of scale aside, and electing to downsize, minimalize and go the individual route. They are abandoning the machine of scale in record numbers. As a result, we are in a gig economy – and for many corporations of scale that means a challenging labor shortage.

This past June, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 16.5 million people are working in “contingent” or “alternative work arrangements”. Nearly 6 million people, 3.8% of workers, held contingent jobs in the US in May. Another 10.6 million were working as independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers and for contract firms. These millions of individuals will attest that smaller is the way to grow.

We are moving from big houses to tiny houses; big wins to tiny wins, mega-churches to micro-churches, hotels to AirBNB, and from traditional publishing to indie authors. What is happening here?

The Mis-Guided Comparison of Scale

The trend is also showing up in numerous other places where we build connections and cultivate our personal and professional growth. Numbers are dropping, causing leaders to wonder if there is some general apathy taking over. We compare our modestly supported causes, associations, events and churches to the mega-churches, massive rallies, and up-level conventions, and wonder where we have missed the mark.

I have personally witnessed a similar scenario play out in a handful of organizations over the past year where numbers of members, volunteers and attendees were dropping. Stuck in the old, “we can’t grow if we aren’t growing in numbers” thinking they each do the following destructive actions:

• they begin looking outside their core supporter base for more members/customers • badger existing members/employees to be more supportive • over-tax volunteers/employees with requests for greater participation • and in the process, alienate those who are still being served.

What these organizations are doing is based out of a fear. They are following the money they think is their source, instead of following the value and shifting need. Value is an inside job. It is invisible. It is immeasurable. It is a micro-movement that cannot impact a massive group first. Value is individual first and foremost. Value happens one customer at a time. Value happens one employee at a time. Value happens one member at a time. It is intimate and it is precise.

Value is a Micro-Movement

Business growth enthusiasts might argue that earnings per share (EPS) is the best measurement of real growth. But is it? What about this need for value in the eyes of the customer and the shareholder? Whom exactly do you expect to underwrite these earnings, after all?

If we aren’t making big money, and attracting like-minded followers, what proves we have grown?

Intellectually we “get it” that value is actually the hallmark of longevity, not scale. But we are badly seduced by the idea that bigger earnings somehow proves we are valuable, and makes us safer in our scale. I mean, we have bills to pay, vacations to take, lives to transform, kids to raise, neighbors to impress, best-sellers to write, businesses to grow and sell, and retirement to save for, right? If we aren’t making big money, and attracting like-minded followers, what proves we have grown?

Certainly earnings growth and value creation can coincide, but it is also possible to increase EPS while destroying value. Despite this proven fact, many companies blindly focus only on EPS growth, even at the expense of value creation. Economic theory and empirical research tell us that the causal relationship between EPS growth and value creation is tenuous at best. Similar research reveals that sales growth also has a shaky connection to shareholder value.

And still we play the numbers game. Even though we have heard “God doesn’t know the difference between a mountain and a molehill” we sit in our molehill, looking up at the mountain and wishing we could be bigger. Or, we sit in our mountain, looking down at the molehill, and tell it to grow up! This sort of comparison is not only detrimental to real growth, it is pointless. Growth is internal to the person and to the organization – not external. Here is what real growth looks like:

• Real growth takes full responsibility and accountability • Real growth communicates and collaborates • Real growth listens actively • Real growth does not dominate, lecture, or force solutions • Real growth takes risks, but is willing to shift as more information is provided • Real growth operates independent of the opinions (and support) of others • Real growth is creative and innovative • Real growth is relaxed and unafraid • Real growth is action-oriented • Real growth does not take on another’s responsibility • Real growth does not blame, complain or criticize • Real growth gives without attachment, and receives just as freely • Real growth is fully present and lives in a constant state of service • Real growth is humble and teachable • Real growth has a vision AND a strategy

These are all personal growth behaviors. But they are also organizational behaviors exemplified by leadership. This type of growth opens up doors of unlimited impact, far beyond mere monetary gain or public adulation. There are many highly visible examples I could cite, but when I choose them, it once again becomes about the fame and fortune, so I will only suggest that you look around you at the happiest people you know. Not the outwardly “perfect image” but the raw, real person you know inside and out. Now, compare them to the list above.

Does internal growth blow the doors of 7-figure income and set a new bar for the stock market? Maybe. Maybe not. Does it have the possibility to change the world so that money is purely incidental? Yes. It most definitely does.

As Margaret Meade said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Sometimes the small group is a group of one, in fact. Look inward for your very own inner contentment, vision and insight. Bring your unique gifts out into the world, reaching just one individual at a time, and watch growth happen – from the inside out.

Inner growth endures when everything else has faded away.

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