This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review (subscription may be required).
Most successful companies eventually face a predictable crisis that we call stall-out—a sudden large drop in revenue and profit growth or a collapse of once high shareholder returns to well below the cost of capital. Stall-out occurs when the growth engine that powered a company to success stops working. This rarely happens because the business model has suddenly become obsolete—a common misconception. Rather, our research shows that the business has almost always become too complex, most often owing to bureaucracy that slows the company’s metabolism, or internal dysfunction that distorts information and hampers managers’ ability to make rapid decisions and take swift action on them. When we talk to executives about the symptoms of stall-out, their words vary, but the reasons remain the same. We’ve lost touch with customers. We’re drowning in process and PowerPoint. We have no shortage of opportunities, but somehow we can no longer act decisively. What was once such a high-energy ride now feels like trying to pilot a plane with no thrust and unresponsive controls.
In an analysis of 8,000 global companies, we found that two-thirds of those successful enough to reach $500 million in revenue faced stall-out over the 15 years ending in 2013—including notables such as Panasonic, Time Warner, Carrefour, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Alcatel-Lucent, Philips, Sony, and Mazda. More alarming still, for 50 large companies in prolonged stall-out, we found that the onset had usually been sudden: Momentum fell sharply over just a year or two, with growth rates dropping from double digits to low single digits or even negative numbers—a finding consistent with past research (see “When Growth Stalls,” HBR, March 2008).
To be sure, external forces put pressure on incumbent companies. Strategy—the external chessboard of business—still matters. Yet competitive strategies are more similar than they used to be, more easily copied, and of shorter duration. The roots of success or failure increasingly lie in the ability of companies to remain fast, perceptive, innovative, and adaptable. Internally thriving companies can respond to shifts in their competitive environments, identifying—and executing—strategies that sustain their dominance. When we polled 377 business leaders, 94% of those in companies with revenue of more than $5 billion told us that internal dysfunction—not lack of opportunity or unmatchable competitor capabilities—was now the main barrier to their continued profitable growth.
Yes, stall-out may be predictable, but it can be overcome. We argue in a forthcoming book that most companies with sustainable growth share attitudes and behaviors: (1) They view themselves as business insurgents, fighting in behalf of underserved customers; (2) they have an obsession with the front line, where the business meets the customer; and (3) they foster a mindset that includes a deep sense of responsibility for how resources are used and for long-term results. Because these qualities are most vibrant in companies led by bold, ambitious founders, we call them “the founder’s mentality.” Since 2000, returns to shareholders in large public companies where the founder is still involved have been three times those for other companies. But any leadership team can harness the revitalizing effects of the founder’s mentality. In some cases, a once dominant mindset has been lost over time and may need to be rebuilt from a few vestiges. But these three qualities can help any company restart its growth engine by removing gunk and complexity that has built up over the years, inhibiting the clean execution of strategy.
Chris Zook is a partner in Bain & Company’s Boston office and a coleader of its global strategy practice. He is a coauthor of The Founder’s Mentality: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth (Harvard Business Review Press, forthcoming).
James Allen is a senior partner in Bain’s London office and a coleader of its global strategy practice. He is a coauthor of The Founder’s Mentality: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth (Harvard Business Review Press, forthcoming).