It feels horrible: You’re scaling up aggressively and working harder than ever, but with each passing day you feel more overwhelmed. Your business is a success, but you feel like a failure. You used to be able to track everything with an Excel spreadsheet, personally designed by your CFO; now you’ve got an SAP installation in its place, supported by an entire IT department. You and your founding team used to feel like members of the same small tribe; now you’re working with unfamiliar layers of staff hired from companies whose culture is not like yours. You used to know your key customers by their first names; now you know them only as averages on PowerPoint slides. Every employee used to know what made your mission special; now most of them don’t. Things are spinning out of control, and you don’t know what to do.
What’s going on? You’ve hit overload—the internal dysfunction and loss of external momentum that strikes young, fast-growing companies as they try to rapidly scale their businesses. Overload is one of the three predictable crises that companies experience as they grow. With overload everyone in the company becomes stretched and loses the focus on the customer. A helpful image to keep in mind here is that of a plate spinner. As the spinner sets more and more plates in motion (growth), he obviously has to keep them in motion. This gets harder and harder, especially if he hasn’t prepared adequately for the challenges involved. Soon what once was a satisfying process becomes a deeply troubling and threatening one (overload): plates start to wobble, and the spinner has to scramble ever faster to keep them all in motion. His mission has changed. He’s no longer thinking about serving and delighting his audience (customers). He’s just trying to manage the chaos and avoid catastrophe.
More of the Harvard Business Review post from Chris Zook