[Opinion] Leadership Through Doing “Things That Don’t Scale”

There are “things that don’t scale” many organizations avoid doing (or abandon outright), when they reach a certain size.

Leaders in those organizations (who may have begun bravely desiring to commit to doing those things) abandon the “things that don’t scale” as other interests begin to attract their attention (see Google’s recent troubles here) and as other constituencies demand attention (see Twitter’s recent issues with investors here). Then there’s the issue of organizational gravity and 747’s.


There are three areas organizational leaders begin with enthusiasm and personalization, but then abandon later when the organization scales:

Customer service: Many organizations say that the end user, the customer, the audience member, the fan, the follower, the client, is the one that they serve, and when they are small enough and scrappy enough, they do exactly that. But at scale (and as they transition into being an incumbent in the market), the customer gets lost in the shuffle and it becomes harder and harder for an organizational leader to make the decision about whom they serve, and then to serve them in the same way they used to.

Conflict management: At scale, conflict management becomes a rote, human resource department driven process, separated from the people who are impacted by the conflicts, disputes and disagreements, and the leaders who can successfully resolve them. This is why human resource departments don’t exist in small businesses, start-ups and other organizations smaller than 50 or so individuals. There, the leader does the resolution, as a chieftain of old would, but above that, the effects of Dunbar’s Number kick in and the organizational leader doesn’t have the attention, time or energy (read “bandwidth”) to address or manage all conflict scenarios all the time.

Marketing efforts: At scale, marketing falls into the same trap as conflict management does. More for less becomes the credo, and what used to be innovative, connecting marketing efforts, becomes bogged down in micromanaging, preening and office egos. What used to be sounding boards become echo chambers and marketing efforts are viewed increasingly as a “nice-to-have” rather than as an integral part of the organizational message.

The way to resolve issues in all of these areas is not to ask the question “Well, do we grow or not?” and then try to either stifle growth or to just let growth happen.

The way to resolve issues in these three areas is to have a steady, continuously reinforced sense of organizational culture, organizational focus, and organizational energy.

Then, the leader has only one question to answer in each area every single day, and the question has “yes” or a “no” answer: Does the action I am about to lead on for this organization match up with our culture, focus and energies?

Acting on “things that don’t scale” by answering that question with either a “yes” or a “no”, opens the door to delight organizational customers, end users, clients, advocates, fans, followers and so many others. Make no mistake: it requires leadership courage to stick to performing in the areas that don’t scale, to keep doing them well, and to keep the employees and others performing them, reigned in.

Otherwise, the “things that don’t scale,” but do delight, are the very things that, when abandoned, will surely lead to organizational death.

-Peace Be With You All-

Jesan Sorrells, MA
Principal Conflict Engagement Consultant
Human Services Consulting and Training (HSCT)
Email HSCT: jsorrells@hsconsultingandtraining.com
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