Suppose two beach-bum friends start up a burger stand at the beach. They share a vision of high-quality burgers at a fair price. They also want a lifestyle that enables them to surf every morning and make enough money to afford their rent.
They set up a grill in a little hut with a window where they serve lunch to customers. When the friends begin, they offer hamburgers, cheeseburgers, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, ketchup, and mustard. That’s it. The two friends have plenty to juggle between managing their vendors, deliveries, food preparation, cooking, and finances.
Demand grows as their reputation builds for quality and price. Lines go around the corner, and it’s hard for the two friends to keep up. They decide to take some of their profits and hire two additional staff to help prepare, cook, and serve food. The company has just doubled in size.
What began as shorthand between the like-minded friends now must be explicitly communicated to the two workers. It’s still manageable. The business continues to thrive. Word of mouth and some excellent restaurant reviews bring in people from far-flung locations.
Customers want more. They request french fries, milkshakes, and hot dogs.
The crowds are great for business but annoying for customers waiting outside in line for upward of an hour. When they finally get their food, customers complain the limited outdoor seating is already taken. Customers request indoor seating to eat their food instead of just a carry-out window with weather-dependent seating. They want the restaurant to open for longer hours so they can come for either lunch or dinner.
The two friends are at a crossroads. Although they’re happy with their business as-is, they see sales plummet on rainy or cold days when customers are unwilling to wait outside in discomfort. To satisfy customer demands, they must enlarge their menu, increase business hours, and find a location that accommodates sit-down dining.
Any one of these changes complicates their original idea. The would-be burger kings decide to go for broke, quadrupling their staff and securing loans to cover their up-front expenses.
In the process of becoming business moguls, the two beach bums have too much going on to manage every aspect of the restaurant. Still, they want to retain their original ideas of quality and value. However, instead of having an implicit understanding, the founders must communicate their vision through a new management layer.
Without belaboring the Burger Shack example, it’s easy to imagine how everything becomes more complicated as businesses achieve levels of success and grow larger. For restaurants, growth often means opening additional locations and possibly franchising. New teams form to address the different restaurant functions like waitstaff, procurement, cuisine, and finance. Each team may have different objectives and different locations.
What used to be an implicit understanding because everyone was in the same room now must be communicated over Zoom in a company all-hands meeting from all the various locations.
As companies grow and expand on the original simple idea, the message and vision become diffuse, sometimes to the point that employees no longer share a common understanding of the purpose of the business.
The burger example is at once familiar, but it also raises plenty of questions. The familiar part is the tale of two beach bums who never aspire to greatness but somehow fall into it. The unlikely success of the founders changes the nature of their problems.
Cracks in agility are most evident when organizations experience growth.
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