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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • February 27, 2022
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Leading the Schizophrenic Organization 

Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:

When leading a young, growing organization through the Early Struggle and Fun stages of growth, leaders typically have a clear sense of what works and what doesn’t when it comes to achieving their growth goals. 

But eventually, identifying (and executing) strategies that succeed across the entire organization becomes ever more difficult.  A marketing strategy works in this channel, but not in that one. A sales strategy is expertly executed by team X, but team Y struggles with it. A highly expensive IT strategy revolutionizes the quality of decision-making in one part of the organization, but seems to completely antagonize another.

It can almost feel like you're trying to lead a schizophrenic organization. What's going on?

The Tipping Point

What's happening is that at some point in your organization’s growth (often as early as around 10 – 15 employees), you cease to be at any one point on the Predictable Success Lifecycle.

So instead of looking like this:

Lifecycle with blue dot

...all but the smallest organizations have projects, divisions, departments, offices – even geographic regions – at different stages on the Lifecycle. And so what was once the 'single blue dot' of your place on the Lifecycle becomes instead the weighted average of the component parts, looking something like this:

Lifecycle with multiple locations

.And this, understandably, makes leadership difficult, as each part of the organization requires a different set of strategies and leadership styles to succeed.

Your goal of course, is move your organization’s overall weighted average into Predictable Success. by managing each disparate element differently, according to the place in the Lifecycle it's currently at.

Now, given there are seven stages in the Predictable Success Lifecycle, this might sound like a mind-bogglingly complex task, but thankfully, of all the possible combinations there are three common patterns which consistenlty re- occur. I detail each of them, the core underlying problem and the best way to overcome it, below.

1. The organization as a whole is stuck in Whitewater with one or two parts of the organization in Early Struggle or Fun.

The Underlying Problem:

Because the organization as a whole is in Whitewater, you need to add enter-prise-wide  systems and process to bring the scalability required to get you in to Predictable Success. This involves building an infrastructure of high-quality team-based decision-making into the organization and injecting the Processor role into senior leadership. The key mantra needs to be 'Do it right'.

On the other hand, those parts of the organization in the earlier stages of the Lifecycle need the exact opposite - the least amount of systems and processes possible and a mindset of 'Do it fast'.

The Solution:

Put a strong Visionary in charge of the parts of the organization in Fun or Whitewater, and let them choose a strong second-in-command Operator.

Firewall the leadership of those activities by having them be part of the central leadership team team in a reporting function only, and don't try to impose the new systems and processes on them. Let them follow the Lifecycle organically from Early Struggle, through Fun and in to their own Whitewater (you can provide them with the needed systems and processes then, but not before).

Conversely, in the core part of the organization that is in Whitewater, resist the urge to adopt the early-stage unit's start-up mindset in the central senior leadership team, whose focus should instead be on integrating the Processor role first, then building the Synergist muscle in their team.

When all of the parts of the organization have evolved in to Predictable Success, re-assimilate the leadership of the earlier stage units back into the central leadership team.  

2. We don’t know if we’re in Treadmill or Whitewater.

The Underlying Problem:

This occurs when a legacy unit of the organisation is in Treadmill and  other parts are in Whitewater and Fun, and is caused by differing perceptions of the Lifecycle by the different Leadership styles.

The Processors in your team will believe the organization is in Whitewater, as to them, even having just parts of the organization in an unstructured state is highly disconcerting.

On the other hand, the Operators on your team will believe the organization is in Treadmill, as to them, the bureaucracy inherent in the legacy unit feels overwhelmingly stifling.

The Solution:

For the legacy unit in Treadmill, you need to reduce the Processor role and inject more controlled risk-taking and innovation, while for the parts of the organization in Whitewater, you need to increase the Processor role and add more process. 

These conflicting needs can only be met by, again, firewalling the leadership of the differing units as much as possible. (Note: This doesn’t mean they should operate in silos, failing to communicate with each other; rather that there should be a clear distinction made in your senior leadership meetings around the right strategies needed for each unit to succeed.

Specifically, increase the Visionary role in the team leading the Treadmill unit(s) and the increase the Processor role in the team leading the Whitewater unit(s).

3. We’re in late Predictable Success/Treadmill and try to launch new initiatives, but they fail.

The Underlying Problem:

Though it occurs everywhere, this common dynamic is easiest to see in the tech industry where once-quirky startups come to dominate a sector – think Uber, Meta, Twitter - and in an attempt to stay relevant, they either launch endless  new initiatives internally, or buy a bunch of start-ups in order to try to 'own' a burgeoning new 'space' (ugh), only to see most everything they touch wither on the vine.

The problem is that having grown substantially, they now have codified their so-called culture ('Who we are and how we do things') to such an extent that their 'enforced cultural consistency' chokes every new initiative before it can attract real traction, and eventually, after a number of years, the initiative gets dropped (see, Google Wave), sold (see, Motorola Mobility) or otherwise subsumed into the organization.

The Solution:

Don't just drop your centralized corporate procedures and policies for new ventures - drop your beloved cultural norms as well. Stop kidding yourself you're still a start-up and that you still think and act like one - you're not, and you don't - so enforcing your culture is only going to choke everything at birth, as we've already seen.

Put a Visionary and an Operator in charge of your new venture and let them build their own darn culture. Let them grow their units following the Lifecycle organically, and once they reach the later part of the Fun stage you can begin to harmonize their culture with yours - which really will have a rejuvenating effect.  

So there you have it - the three most common sources of 'schizophrenia' which occur during an organization's growth, the potential obstacles that arise and the best way to overcome them.

What about you - how do you lead amidst 'organizational schizophrenia'? 

Let me know in the comments below!


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  1. Schizophrenia is a serious and lifelong brain disease, not an adjective. Using a medical condition to describe a business method – and using it incorrectly, by the way, as schizophrenia is not multiple personality disorder – is disrespectful to the 3 million Americans living with this disease.

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