Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Does your business suffer from the "usual suspect" syndrome?

I've seen it at several places. It usually strikes fast-growing startup companies and becomes particularly painful as they grow past 200 employees. A small group of people emerges with either (1) authority or (2) key subject matter expertise. As the company grows, the group is stretched thinner and thinner, such that they appear to be invited to every meeting and involved in every decision of consequence. Without their input, nothing happens.

The usual suspects then are so busy that they don't have time to delegate or train people so that they can share the workload. Meanwhile, the company continues to grow, decisions stagnate, excellent people leave for lack of opportunities or simply out of frustration. Finally, there's an agonizing resolution, frequently as a result of a forced management change or sale/merger.

The suspects are exhausted, empty, and no longer needed.

Have you ever seen this happen?



Andrew Meyer said...


I have seen what you're talking about when I was at a fast growing software company in NY in 2000. Depending upon the type of company, there is a certain growth point or crisis they hit. Things that worked before that crisis, no longer work. The processes and systems seem to freeze.

There's an article from Harvard Business Review by Larry Greiner called "Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow" It's really a brilliant piece which describes exactly what I think you're talking about, why it happens and how to address it. It was originally published in 1972 and then republished in May-June 1998. It is reprint 98308.


John Caddell said...

Andrew, I will have to check out that article. And I like your blog--I've added it to my RSS reading list.

regards, John

NWGuy said...

This is a common issue across organizations. There are certain stress points based on size, the increments vary but are typically addressed as 20, 100, 200, 500 people.

Beyond the expertise factor it comes down to key people not knowing everybody anymore. Not only are key people relied upon, they typically want to "own" everything because they know more than anybody else in the organization.

This was really truly with dot-coms. It takes experience to understand the need to delegate and the confidence to let go.

Michelle Malay Carter said...


Yes, I've seen this. I've posited that it has to do with a rapidly growing organization becoming too complex for the cognitive capability of the "usual suspect".

Very few entrepreneurs have the humility necessary to understand when their “baby” has grown out from under them and now requires a level of leadership greater than they can offer. Relinquishing the top spot to an “outsider” and becoming their direct report takes guts and character.

Usually when start ups hit this crucial point, they implode or are purchased.

I was impressed with Linden Labs (Second Life) CEO Philip Rosedale had the character to step down as CEO this year. Bravo!

I blogged about another company standing at destiny's door here:


Michelle Malay Carter