It's an existential question: can a business thrive without growing?
Public companies may have a pat answer. Their masters expect always-appreciating share value, or else. But is growth natural? Is unceasing growth realistic? Or is the drumbeat of Onward, Ever Upward really just a form of tyranny?
I've wrestled with this. Living in Public Company Land for a long time, I used to think that the optimal situation was a private enterprise with no external masters demanding incessant growth (though this would rule out most private equity owners, as well as founders' families with ever-more-expensive tastes). Leaders in such businesses could make more reasoned decisions about what was healthiest for the company... and even the market.
But could they really thrive long term by finding a nice, healthy position in the market and staying there, without growth?
The problem is physics. I think often of the second law of thermodynamics as it relates to business, and not because I know the zeroth (yes), first or third laws. The second law explains that nature itself is at odds with a thriving, long term business. It states, in my paraphrase, that the natural state of everything is decay. And the only alternative to decay is to renew, rebuild, advance. Max DePree, of Herman Miller, made this point years ago in his book Leadership Is An Art, and it stuck with me.
Muscles are either being built up or atrophying. Our minds are either expanding or calcifying. Our products are either aging or being remade. Our aesthetic designs are either slipping behind the times or being reworked to stay ahead. There is no sitting still.
If we take the path of least resistance, we choose decline. And that is why growth is necessary for businesses to thrive. Growth requires that we keep pressing uphill.
To grow, at least in the long run, we have to advance. We have to understand our market better, we have to serve our customers better, we have to operate better, we have to work with our vendors better, we have to manage our cash better, and we have to deliver ever-better products. (Apple is expected to announce shortly the next version of the iPhone 6. Didn't the first iPhone 6 launch just a year ago? Yes.) When we adopt a growth mindset, we rule out the perspective that leads inevitably to decay: "We've arrived."
I'll admit that the implication can be daunting. We're acknowledging that the only good path is a career set against the grain. But it is what it is. The most magnificent house or company or country, left alone, will crumble. The only alternative is constant renewal, rebuilding and improvement.
That's why we keep working on ourselves and others. It's why we try to stay educated, healthy and invigorated. It's why we develop the people around us, and the people coming behind us: to bring new energy and fresh perspective to the task. It's why I've put away the false notion of a privately-held utopia, where the employees hum happy tunes while delivering the same lovely profit each year.
Of course, if we accept the mantle of Onward, Ever Upward, we recognize the fundamental importance of this question: what does growth require? Do we just have to try harder, everywhere? Or is there a way to evaluate our business and the market to know where and how we most need to advance?
If you're interested in those good questions, watch this space. Soon after Apple's Sept. 9th press conference (I wouldn't want to step on their toes), I'll be ready to announce an exciting project that gets right to the heart of how we grow.