Published: 16th April 2010
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Managing a fast growing, flexible, successful organization is like riding an exciting roller coaster for everyone involved - the entire team is motivated, customers are ecstatic, myths and legends are being built, and life is good.

Unfortunately - and inevitably - the very success that every fast-growing organization experiences bring with it the seeds of failure: eventually the organization hits a stage at which increasing complexity (brought on by the very success that got it here) severely tests the organization's ability to handle the mechanics of growth. Orders get missed, deliveries arrive late, customers begin to complain, and the workforce begins to lose enthusiasm and alignment. Formerly effective and productive managers become bogged down in firefighting, inefficiencies grow and profits slump. Eventually, the fun goes out of arriving at work each day. I call this the 'Whitewater' stage in a young organization's growth - think of it as the organizational equivalent of hitting adolescence.

It's during this 'Whitewater' stage that the organization's leaders face a simple, though stark challenge: how to professionalize management so that it can control complexity effectively - without losing the vitally entrepreneurial, innovative and creative drive that is the engine of growth.

For many leaders this can be a bewildering, confidence-sapping time - for them, this doesn't feel like a transition from adolescence to maturity. Rather, it feels like the whole business is under threat, that their management and leadership skills have lost their impact, and that their ability to 'make the car move forward' has gone. This growing sense of impotence often in turn leads to frustration and the eager adoption of 'quick-fix' managerial initiatives. These initiatives, though introduced with the best of intentions, almost always fail, drowned in the sea of complexity engulfing the organization and orphaned by the 24/7 firefighting the management team are engaged in.

In my experience of coaching many hundreds of managers and leaders through Whitewater, the key to steadying the ship and emerging out of this organizational adolescence into maturity lies not in throwing various initiatives at the wall and hoping one will stick, but rather in taking five mundane, but essential steps:

1. Redesign your org chart into a 'machine for decision-making'.
In young, growing organizations the org chart is about people, not positions. Positions are an outgrowth of the people who inhabit them. In Whitewater, it's vital that the org chart be redesigned as a 'machine for decision-making'. This means establishing precisely what roles are needed to manage the business, then honestly establishing whether or not the existing incumbents have the skills required to carry out each role.

2. Teach your managers to work laterally.
In rapidly growing businesses, managers emerge to 'vertically' manage functional groups and teams. To take an organization out of Whitewater, the organization for the first time needs its managers to manage three-dimensionally - both 'up and down' in their functional silos, and laterally, 'across' to other managers.

3. Implement cross-functional decision-making.
The need to operate cross-functionally doesn't stop with the managers. The increasing complexity faced by the organization means that few good quality decisions can be made in one functional area - now, decisions can only be made and implemented by everyone reaching across functions for the information, assistance and support they need.

4. Re-instill the organization's mission, vision and values.
In Whitewater, employees lose sight of the organization's direction and what their role is in getting it there. The leaders of an organization in Whitewater need to revisit the mission, vision and values that propelled it's early stage growth, re-design them as needed, then consistently communicate and model the new mission, vision and values.

5. Increasingly empower decentralized decision-making.
The final step needed to push the organization fully out of Whitewater is to gradually deepen the degree to which the newly aligned and cross-functional managers and employees are able to use their initiative and abilities to consistently make and implement high-quality decisions. Pushing high-quality decision-making out from the executive suite and down the org chart is the final step in the transition from adolescence into organizational maturity.

Making these changes requires discipline and patience - in my experience it can take anywhere from 6 months to 3 years to move from organizational adolescence to maturity - from what I call Whitewater to Predictable Success. In my new book, "Predictable Success: Getting Your Organization On the Growth Track - and Keeping It There", I show in detail how to implement each of the steps above, what the most common pitfalls are in doing so, and how to emerge from Whitewater as a fully mature, 'predictably successful' organization.

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