What’s the right pace of growth for your business?

What’s the right pace of growth for your business?

It’s become a bit of a cliché to say that starting and scaling a business is “a marathon, not a sprint”. Of course, it’s true that any significant project requires focus and determination to complete. As someone who’s been guilty of using the phrase too, and since I am currently training for my first (and probably last) marathon in Dublin in just a few weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the phrase while pounding the streets. One of the things I’ve contemplated is the concept of “pacing” and how it relates to business growth. Like, I am sure, anyone else who’s decided to complete a marathon, the inevitable question you face when you announce your intention is “what time are you aiming for?” And so, you throw out a time that makes sense based on your running history and fitness, etc. But, until you actually start your training programme, you don’t really know whether this is wildly optimistic or an achievable goal. Personally, as someone who has completed a decent number of triathlons and running races previously, I thought that 4:00 hours seemed a reasonable ambition. Now, after over 9 months and 400+ miles of running, I’ve realised that a time nearer 4:20 would actually be a more realistic outcome, but still a significant achievement. So, here’s why this is relevant to business growth. I’ve worked with many entrepreneurs and CEOs who (like my initial marathon time) will announce an ambitious goal for growth. Maybe it’s to satisfy investors and external stakeholders, or perhaps it’s internally driven, but in many cases it’s based on no more detailed analysis that my four hour ambition. I bet that not many first-time marathon runners would aim for 4:05 as a goal time, even though the odds of nice neat number like 4 hours is extremely unlikely. 4 hours just “feels” better, doesn’t it? Now, I’m aware that much is written about having a “big audacious goal” and entrepreneurs are always encouraged to “dream big” and “go for it”. I get it. But, what my marathon training has taught me is that, more often than not, you have to adjust your goal when you get feedback. For me, feedback has come in the form of a number of niggling injuries and issues. These have been minor set-backs (like we all experience in business) but they have required me to adjust my plan accordingly. And, when going through this process of adjustment, I discovered something interesting. Slowing my pace didn’t actually make a huge different to the end goal (when considering everything in context). Let me elaborate. Completing a marathon in 4 hours requires a pace of 9:00 minutes per mile (min/mile). At the start of the training programme, this appeared to me to be easily achievable, since that pace was way slower than any normal training run. To manage injuries and other issues, I found that I needed to slow my pace down to around 9:40 min/mile, which would result in a marathon time of 4:14 (assuming I kept at that pace overall). I had to ask myself: as someone completing their first marathon, in reality, am I that bothered about 14 minutes extra? Of course, not! But the reduction in pace has made a huge difference in my ability to sustain the training programme. Now, here’s the thing. Whilst I’m happy to admit my original goal was, with hindsight, a little too ambitious – not everybody would do the same. I am sure that many “A-type” personalities would persist despite the feedback and possibly hit their original goal (if they managed to get to the start line that is). And, in business, I believe even less CEOs would adjust their original goal. Targets are set annually but, by Q3, it’s sometimes clear they are never going to be hit. How often would the CEO sit back and say: “look everyone, this isn’t going to happen so let’s adjust the target to something that it’s more likely we will achieve”. In my experience it rarely happens. Which is a shame. I’ve sat in meetings where everyone is staring at a sea of red on a spreadsheet with no hope of getting back on track. It sucks the life out of the room. Neuroscience and behavioural-economics show clearly that, in this situation, we feel threatened and, therefore, tensions inevitably grow; some people will lash out, blame others or exhibit bad behaviours, whilst some people withdraw or quit altogether. Which just compounds the problem. Much of this can be avoided by setting process rather than outcome goals. So, instead of having a goal to complete a marathon in a set time, my goal should have been to get fitter through marathon training and then, if I got to the start line, simply to enjoy the day. This is because we can control the process more than the outcome. However, in my experience, that’s not what businesses focus on. I’ve known entrepreneurs who have set huge growth goals and “gone for broke” – quite literally. Perhaps, sometimes we should stop and question whether it would be better to scale back our ambitions slightly. Would a slightly lower target be more appropriate; one that, in the excitement of strategizing and goal-setting, may even seem too easy? Consider whether there’s a better pace of growth for your business. As an advisor and mentor to many entrepreneurs, I’ve found this questioning can provide a reality check; future-pacing important decisions can be a useful approach. How will your growth plans affect cash-flow, staff morale and existing customers? There is compelling evidence through behavioural experiments that continued success in achieving steps towards a goal increases the desirability of the goal and, vice-versa, constant failure leads to us lowering our targets and, consequently, lowering performance. Intuitively we know this is true. It’s human nature (as demonstrated by my revised marathon goal time) and so should always be considered when setting business growth goals. More importantly, continued failure to achieve business goals results in low employee engagement and staff churn, both of which will have a huge impact on long-term growth. After all, it’s always easier, and more motivating, to adjust a target upwards later than to admit defeat. [EDIT: POST MARATHON] So, I completed the Dublin Marathon… and, after adjusting my goal time and training programme, I managed to finish 4:00:20, which is pretty much bang on my original “finger in the air” prediction. What did I learn from this?
  1. Re-calibrating my time goal and training programme enabled me to move forward through set-backs and injuries when the original plan looked un-achievable.
  2. Based on every “time predictor” tool online, there was no way that my training performance indicated a 4 hour finish time.
  3. Ultimately, if you keep going, who knows what you can achieve.
Did I mention that I’m still not going to run another marathon? Published originally by David Regler on LinkedIn in 2018
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