Giant Spiders

When I was young, I loved to watch old sci-fi movies. One of my favorites was (and still is) the 1955 movie Tarantula about a lab experiment gone bad that results in a giant tarantula roaming the Arizona countryside eating cows and eventually an entire town before being taken out by the US Air Force. The movie was so iconic that it made the list of sci-fi movies mentioned in Richard O’Brien’s song, “Science Fiction / Double Feature.”

Of course, it is impossible for a tarantula to be the size of a house. Its exoskeleton would collapse under its own weight. To grow, the spider has to shed its old exoskeleton (molt) and expand a still-soft new one. As the spider grew, it would soon be unable to sustain this cycle as its own weight would crush it before the new exoskeleton hardened. Also, as the volume of the spider increased, the surface area necessary for oxygen uptake increases resulting in more water loss. If the spider survived molting, it would soon suffocate or desiccate.

When I ran the Austin Marathon in 2003, I distinctly remember how proud Austinites were that Austin was weird. They put it on bumper stickers and t-shirts and billboards. And it was. Austin was a reasonably large metropolitan area (over a million residents), but it felt like a small art community. “Weird” referred to the unique blend of a wide range of music scenes, outdoorsy culture, and natural beauty. It was fun, accessible, and affordable.

Today, that has changed. In the two decades since that marathon, Austin has more than doubled in population. Gentrification has made Austin unaffordable for many original Austinites. A construction boom has eclipsed much of the outdoorsy feel and blocked many of the views. The influx of new money and people has led to once quirky and quaint venues and eateries being overpriced and crowded.

We are talking about scaling, and it typically doesn’t work. What works at one size often fails spectacularly at a much larger size. This includes communities and organizations (and spiders). Yet most leaders want their organizations to grow, putting themselves and their people at significant risk. We can grow, but careful thought and effort must be applied.

Like the giant spider and Austin, growth creates conflict around both resources and purpose. So, let’s look at those individually.

Like our giant spider, the larger an organization or community becomes, the more resources it requires.  We can easily see this effect in cities. As cities grow, they consume more water and produce more trash. Water sources that could recover during annual cycles at lower demand soon fail at higher levels of draw. Methods used to dispose of waste that were adequate at low levels quickly become problematic as the volume increases.

Likewise, as a community or organization grows, the systems and “reservoirs” of various resources become strained. Additionally, the infrastructure necessary to acquire and allocate resources has to grow and produces no direct return on its own. It is overhead. All this sounds like dollars and physical materials, but it applies to intangible things too. We soon find it takes more effort and additional structure to maintain relationships and manage communication and expectations.

Like the tangible and intangible resource needs of an organization, purpose or mission naturally becomes diluted and harder to inculcate in the group. When Kimray was young, everyone who worked there knew and interacted with the founder nearly every day. There was rarely any confusion about what they were doing, what the company stood for, or what the vision for the future was. Everyone could touch the source.

As organizations grow, the level of intentionality in communicating the vision and mission has to grow as a square of the organizational growth. If you think of the organization as an area, you can see that if you go from 1 x 1 to 2 x 2, the area goes from 1 to 4. Today, with nearly 1,000 people and many multiples of space, products, processes, and activities, the requirement for intentional and consistent communication has grown a little like that radioactive spider—it’s huge.

Growth also brings more diversity of experience, thought, and beliefs. Small groups tend to be more homogenous. Growth creates opportunities for more variation, and this creates rally points that attract people to join who are aligned to the subgroup more than the larger community. Diversity can be a significant strength for a large organization if one simple thing is true.

Successful growth requires clear, concise, and broadly adoptable core values and a relatable mission.

Without these, the many subgroups (subcultures) will compete for attention and resources and undermine the main culture and mission. Large communities and organizations can value and understand a wide range of views, but they must be hyper-focused on the main mission and staying true to the core values.

I’m very glad that spiders don’t scale well. I am deathly afraid of the little ones, so huge ones…nope! Communities and organizations can, however, scale successfully if they pay attention to the things that make them unique in the first place. Scaling the means to clearly communicate the core values and mission will focus the attention and effort of a growing number of diverse people on achieving a common goal, and it is The Bison Way.