Growth and control biases

When we don’t recognize that growth and control are in tension with each other, we tend to develop a bias that prevents us from spotting problems with the decisions we make. To better make sense of how this bias shows up – and how to account for it – I will rely on the dandelions and elephants framing. As you may recall, the whole point of dandelions is growth, and elephants are all about holding on to value in a well-defined niche.

The more dandelion-like the environment, the more likely we are to exhibit bias toward control, having higher than warranted confidence in our ability to predict the shape of the product niche that is yet to be discovered. This bias is entrenched in the usual “brilliant engineer/scientist” stereotype: the plucky hero who can see the solution way before anyone else. My experience is that these brilliant minds are narratives: they are stories of the lucky survivors whose being in the right place at the right time is reinterpreted – and entrenched in myth – as some superhuman ability.

In a dandelion environment, everyone is just stumbling around to find out. The less firmly we hold on to our conceptions about the final form of the product, the more we invite serendipity. The more optionality we embed into our own stumbling around, the more likely we are to hit the vein of something interesting. The early pivots of products that led to Flickr and Slack are great examples of doing this well. Poor Stewart Butterfield. He keeps trying to build a video game, and these successful businesses pop out instead.

One typical pattern emerging from the control bias in a dandelion environment is placing early big bets. When we see a large organization spun up for a focus area whose shape is not fully known, we are likely seeing the “control as cost” scenario: the mere size of the organization and the need to justify its existence will prevent it from embracing serendipity. The book Showstopper! is a great read for an inside story of the suffering this anti-pattern causes.  I call these kinds of products “elephantine dandelions” – they are simply too big to be agile among other dandelions in the wind of change, yet they continue to exist, buoyed by their size.

Conversely, the more elephant-like our environment, the more likely we are to bias toward growth, presuming that it is something we can simply rely on. There are a couple of patterns here that I am familiar with. One shows up as a belief that continued growth is the organization’s birthright – despite the fact that most of the effort is expended eking out the last bits of value under the curve in the well-defined niche. Thankfully, Clayton Christensen’s concept of disruptive innovation provides an antidote to this bias – though given that the pattern keeps repeating across all industries, I am not sure how effective this antidote is.

Another pattern of growth bias is what I call the “never-ending long tail.” Every so often, a new contender comes up to disrupt a well-established niche, with the tantalizing promise of breaking through the mold of the well-optimized niche. In such cases, it’s very important to watch for the long tail of consumer expectations: are they still there? When the newcomer shows promise and inspires a compelling new vision of what’s possible, are they playing in an entirely new space, or are they still on the hook to deliver on all existing, mostly implicit contracts with the customer?

A good example here is the emergence of new Web rendering engines. I have seen a couple of announcements crop up here and there, and I am totally rooting for them as a fellow engineer, but as a strategist, I have very little hope that they’ll survive under the crushing weight of all the quirks and barnacles that a modern Web rendering engine must support. After initial success and admiration of colleagues (“look! it’s so much faster than others!”), a never-ending long tail of conforming to the same shape within the same niche awaits them.

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