The Difference Between Natural and Steroid Growth

March 24, 2013

This post is adapted from my upcoming book Change.

There are good and bad ways to grow. 

As an organization, are you relying on truth to inspire growth? Or are you shortcutting truth with parlor tricks and distracting devices to give it that steroid jolt—things that actually detract from your mission rather than add to them?

Gimmicks and shortcuts are cheap ways to grow any organization. They attract attention but have nothing to do with the real mission. Like steroid use, they’re not sustainable—and they rarely work to make lasting change.

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In 2009, a church in Texas promised to lock their lead pastor in a suspended, 6 x 6 x 6-foot, Plexiglas box for three days and three nights… if the 3,300 person congregation boosted their attendance above 4,000 for Easter and the week after. The confined preacher told his churchgoers to “get out of the box” and invite others to church.

The result? A two-week bump, and then more of the same.

Attendance reports for the church three years later still range around low-to-mid 3,000s. The church’s mission was to see more people meet Jesus, but somewhere along the line, they got mixed up and equated temporary numerical growth with true growth. They attempted a parlor trick that got a quick but fleeting spike in people, but didn’t translate into true growth. They were off mission and at a sideshow.

The outcome of steroid growth is no different in the business world.

Perhaps one of the best examples I can think of is Enron. Their goal was to grow the bottom line for their shareholders. In their heyday, Enron employed over 20,000 employees and reported nearly $101 billion in revenues. Unfortunately, rather than deal with truth, Enron got tricky with their financials and were indicted for accounting fraud. Rather than rely on truth to measure their growth, they played games and paid dearly for it.

Instead of growing the bottom line for shareholders, Enron’s leaders bankrupted the company, defrauded investors, and erased the financial security of 20,000 employees. The cost of not relying on truth was high, the growth unnatural, and the damage deadly—a few suicides have been directly attributed to Enron’s actions.

Every organization encounters the temptation of steroid growth.

It could be an opportunity for extra cash, as it was with Enron, which acted as if money was their barrier to growth. It could be talent: hiring the big gun from the outside to single-handedly grow the organization. It could be a PR scheme to make things look good when they aren’t. 

Whatever it is, leaders need to be aware of the downside to gimmicks. Work to lead your organization through change and growth in a way that is both natural and sustainable.

Natural growth takes time, patience, and hard work, but it’s worth it.