The tension between growth and control

I alluded to this tension before, but it was somewhat buried in a fairly obscure context of compounding loops. Here’s a somewhat unkempt riff on the concept.

When introducing a product into the hands of our customers, we will nearly always face the tension between growth and control. Here, growth reflects the number of people who choose to use our product, and control is the degree to which we get to decide what this product will be and how it might be used.

Basically, think of these as two extreme ends of a line that can never move close to each other. We can travel along the line with our product strategy, but never bend it to make control and growth meet. We can either lean toward growth and thus relinquish more control, or we can lean toward control and thus give up on more growth.

Interestingly, the quests for growth and control both stem from the same intention toward value. We seek growth when we are looking to acquire value, and we seek control when we seek to protect it. And almost always, we want to have both: we are intent on holding on to some value and are looking to acquire more. Truly blessed are those who don’t have attachments: they are blissfully unaware of this tension. If one has nothing to lose, they have no need to grow. For the rest of us, the growth/control tension is something we experience every day.

For example, if we’re shipping an API, we usually want its usage to go up (growth) and we want developers who use this API to only use it the way we want to (control). When we imagine a new service, we want it to be enjoyed by as many users as possible (growth), yet we also have very firm ideas on what we want to build (control).

Often, control isn’t something we have due to value we already hold, but rather due to a debt we carry. Writing software or making hardware takes time. In the gap between us starting the project and it becoming available to our customers, we crystallize our ideas into code and circuitry. Think of this crystallization as a form of control: we make decisions about what the product should be, and by making these decisions we exercise control over its shape. 

This crystallization is also an unrealized value – we won’t start accruing this value until the product is released to the users. When we do, many of these decisions are somewhat irreversible: even if we want to relinquish control and adapt our product to stimulate its growth, we can’t do so easily. Especially with hardware, a single decision made somewhere in depth of the multi-year gap between ideation and shipping can severely limit a product’s capacity to grow.

The outcome of growth has a similar trappy quality. If our product is blessed with exponential growth, after reaping its benefits for a while, we will eventually arrive at the weirdest situation. No matter how much we try, we can’t do anything but optimize for what is already expected by our massive user base. Any attempt at deviation triggers the allergic reaction of irate customers: “why are you moving my cheese and how soon can you put it back?” In this trap of successful growth, control is no longer ours, no matter how much we try to wrestle for it.

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