You need a spark to start a fire. Rapid motion, intense heat. Friction, leading to a small explosion, and something new. Then, suddenly, things change. If you've ever tried starting a fire, especially in poor conditions, you know it's no longer about motion or friction. It's about being precise. Gentle, even. Make sure the environment is right. Don't blow too hard. Be patient and methodical. Let it spread, fan the flames, and let it grow from twigs to logs. The path from spark to roaring fire isn't straight, and companies are the same way.
All organizations begin with a spark. Founders create something new based on a vision or a critical insight. It's not easy. It takes intensity and friction – after all, new ideas rub old thinking the wrong way. Then, as the organization matures, founders need to change their behavior to become managers in order for the business to catch fire. Starting a company is different than growing a company.
Any successful enterprise has lived through this transition. Either the founders learned how to shift, they hired a good team with different skills, or both. Sometimes leaders get stuck between gears because they don't fully appreciate the need for this change. Their teams feel it, however, and company performance reveals it. Founders are rewarded early for moving fast (and "breaking things," notably identified by Facebook), but friction and explosions aren't always what a company needs to grow.
When it comes to catalyzing growth, we have found at least two essential goals: Strategic Focus and Organizational Alignment. These are two sides of a coin; you need a focus to guide alignment, and you need alignment to manifest a focus. Nearly every organization could use more of each, but what happens first can be determined by its stage of growth. If you consider the typical S-curve lifecycle from startup to growth, maturity, and decline, there is alternating urgency between focus and alignment.
In their startup and maturity phases, organizations first need greater focus—either they haven't determined their focus yet, or have perhaps lost focus. Then they can align their activities based on that new or renewed focus. Companies in growth mode don't feel unfocused, but the parts are often out of alignment. Getting ducks in a row can clear the way for a better focus on the next horizon. Organizations in a declining situation should be looking to restart, or jump the S-curve, meaning they too should start with a new focus.
Sparking growth and keeping it lit requires a leader to adapt to the changing needs of their organization. The creative spark that started a company can become its Achilles' heel, so founders need to shift their behavior from creating sparks to managing the burn. A healthy balance of strategic focus and organizational alignment can keep the fire burning.