Four Principles for Creating (and Growing) Sustainable Systems

Everyone likes to talk about scale, but not everyone can (or should) think about it. For me, I have had to find a happy medium between growing my business and balancing my life. In business books and articles like Forbes, they call this the "work life balance". The thing is, I don't have balance and do not intend to. But I do intend to have margin, and for me, margin is magic. Margin is the space between, the time and energy I have reserved for doing the things I enjoy doing. It's prioritizing life as a whole unit, instead of drawing this invisible line in the sand between life and work. In reality, things like balance never work out the way we think they will, but on the other side of that coin, if I am intentional about making sure there is margin in my finances, relationships, and time, I can jump at opportunities as they present themselves. It's because of this margin-magic that our business has grown every year for six years, and why margin + scale is one of the most discussed topics I have with clients in both the non-profit and for profit space.

You can have margin and still scale.

But first, you need to determine what you want to scale, and what scale means to you. You would think this is as easy as researching a scaling model, but when you do that, you end up putting yourself in someone else's box, and that does nothing for you but keep you trapped under the weight of another's prescription.

Our goal is to provide you a framework for sustainable growth, so you can map out a course according to the mission and vision of your organization. That starts with understanding what scale is. In short, scale is growth commensurate upon available resources. What we have found is that every successful scaling model not only understands this definition, they also have the following four principles present in their business model. I want to give you these four principles, in order to help you effectively grow over time. So ... consider this is your sustainable scaling cheat-sheet.

1. Reproducible

If we can accept the definition of scale and understand that every successful business model has these four principles in place, then we can understand why we place reproducible so high up on our principle list. The ability for any organization to reproduce their profit and their people is tantamount to success, and not many do it well? Between the egos of an older model of top-down leadership, to the inattentive desires of new hires to take employee handbooks seriously, the ability to reproduce is a lost art.

Yet the ability to reproduce is the baseline of all healthy and growing companies. It's also the start of all scientific theory. In the scientific method, we are supposed to move from a question to research, and ultimately end up with a conclusion that is reproducible. If you cannot reproduce, then you have a model that only works once or for a season, and results are no longer guaranteed. That's not just science; it's life.

When we start a new client project, we always lay out specific and measurable results among the way. These allow us to know if we are achieving our goals not. It's also the same way teachers lead their students. Whether through a lecture or a test, quality teachers make sure their students know that there will specifics and measurables to attain. Failure to do so will result in a lower grade, or the inability to move forward.

This inability to move forward is the kink in the hose of reproduction. 

  • If you cannot define specifics and measurables, then you cannot teach anything.
  • To teach is, to cause to learn.
  • To learn is to absorb truth. 
  • To grow is to transition from truth to action.

While your handbook may be instrumental in giving your employees knowledge about the inner workings of your company, it cannot just be taught, it must also be caught in the way you apply your handbook to every day life in the office. If you can marry the head (learn) and hand (do) knowledge, then you can reproduce a successful employee, and thus, begin the way forward in scaling.

2. Owned (and Accepted)

Your handbook and the way you operate on a daily basis must be owned and accepted by every employee you have. In this, you cannot have any give. North Coast Church is one of the largest churches in California, averaging around 14,000 attendees on a weekend, with six campuses, and an eye on micro-sites around the country. Yet for the first three years that Larry Osborne took over as their senior pastor, they only grew by one person. I recently led a workshop on scale at a local church conference and asked this question: "Why do you think North Coast Church only grew by one person in three years when Larry took the reins?" The answers ranged from having a bad community relationship to poor preaching, to the leadership transitions, and the fact that it was a newer church in a growing area with a lot of options.

The thing is, I know the answer to question: unity. The early church only grew by one person in three years because they did not have the right people on the right bus, at the right time. It wasn't until they both trimmed the fat and got in sync, that they began their journey to become one of the fastest growing churches in America.

Ownership cannot be forced; it must be adopted through time and trust. 

I love Patagonia. Almost every t-shirt and layered item of clothing I own is from Patagonia. In fact, right now as I type this out, I am looking up at my coat racks seeing two hats, a vest, a fleece, and a jacket ... all from Patagonia (If I was trying to keyword rank for Patagonia, I would be really screwed here with the keyword stuffing). The thing is, the brand just works for me. It fits. It's comfortable. It's a whole lot more than the average item at Target, but the quality is so much better, that I know I will have the goods for longer.

I trust Patagonia for the quality of their goods, just like you trust the brands you are wearing right now. But it didn't just happen; they earned your trust. And this trust led to you being a loyal consumer.

  • How do you move a person from being a fan to being a follower?
  • How do you get them from knowing what you have is good, to trusting what you have is good?

You give it the time you need to build trust in the relationship.

3. Funded

No one really likes talking about this piece, but if you want to continue to discuss scaling, then you need to wrap your head around this principle. It's the one that trips almost everyone up, because no one has the resources to match their vision (nor should they).

We fund our model through people and finances. 

You resource what is important to you (values). If you have an area of ministry that you need to grow, you need to provide the people and finances for them to adequately achieve your specific and measurable goals. Too often we create new things and hand them off, not giving them people or resources to get the job done, yet we expect our goals to be met.

It's the same thing that happens when we confuse hiring for the role with hiring for the position.

  • Roles are malleable
  • Jobs are checkboxes

You need people who are cross-disciplined, because everyone is a vital piece of the puzzle. If you only have checkboxes, then you have created a ministry of silos who exist unto themselves first and the organization second. If possible, flip the script and allow your role fillers to major in their wheelhouse, and minor in the things they can assist in.

Once you understand the nuance here, you can fund with people and finances and round third base on your way home to the fourth principle.

4. Actionable

You can have the greatest intentions in the world, but if you cannot act on those intentions, then you cannot scale. The difference between a good and great leader is the ability to take their team from A to Z, and not just A. It's the little things that matter, making the entire journey across the entire business alphabet. While your competition is sitting alone at night on a couch watching Netflix and drowning their sorrows in a gallon of ice-cream, you're in front as the market leader enjoying a peaceful night of sleep.

You've turned the corner because you can speak with authority and lead with authority.

Your people trust you, because you've given them the staff and funding they need to achieve. They enjoy working with you, because they've owned and accepted the process and live their work life according to it. And because they're happy and enjoying this season of growth, they've become your greatest asset, attracting new talent who can carry the next round of torches. Scaling has now become your flywheel, getting easier and easier with each passing day.