Exponential Growth Isn’t Always a Good Thing


Growth needs to be manageable and sustainable


Have you heard about the invention of chess?

There are a few different versions of the story but they all come down to the same lesson — small things can make a big difference.

Rumour has it that when chess was invented the King was so enchanted with the game that he offered ‘any reward’ to the inventor. That’s right, any reward.

The inventor had, what on the face of it seemed like a really simple request. His ask of the king was:

“… take a grain of wheat and place it on the first square. On the second square place two, on the third square place 4, on the fifth square place 8…and for each square continue doubling the amount of grain…that’s what I want.”

The king was initially a bit dumbfounded. He thought the request was quite tame. He was half expecting to be asked for gold and riches that would equal that of the king himself. Or, perhaps for land and property. Or, maybe for power and status. But instead this inventor had a measly request for grain. The king summoned his treasurer, ordered him to pay the inventor his reward and be done with it…after all he had a new game to enjoy.

Some days went by, then a week and the inventor had received no reward. So he requested an audience with the King. When he walked in his question was simple “Why have I not been paid my reward?” The king was furious…not with the inventor of course but with his treasury. He demanded his chief treasurer come at once and explain why this inventor had not been compensated. The treasurer approached with some trepidation and explained that the demand could not be fulfilled…there simply wasn’t enough grain. If the king wanted to pay that reward he would need more grain than his Kingdom could ever produce. More grain probably than 5 or 10 of his kingdoms could ever produce. He’d been fooled.

Now there are a few different versions to the ending of that story. One ends with the King immediately sentencing the inventor to death for making him look foolish. Another version has him appoint the inventor to a senior advisory role within the kingdom — recognising his intellect and talents.

Either way, this story shows the power (and the danger!) of exponential growth.


The limits of exponential growth

How many times do you hear this in business? We talk about exponential growth as if it’s the holy grail. Exponential growth in website visitors, exponential growth in app downloads, exponential growth in sales, exponential growth in conversion rates, exponential growth in the number of people working at our company.

It’s the thing we’re all supposed to be aiming for, right?

But this story clearly demonstrates that exponential growth has its limits. At some point along the way, it’s just not feasible anymore. So, I suppose my question is this:

If you’re chasing after exponential growth are you also thinking about what you’re going to do when you hit the ceiling?

Exponential growth can be good…for a while, but it’s only good if you’re also thinking about how you can sustain it. Otherwise, what’s the point?

In the parable about the inventor of chess and the King by the time you’re only half way through the chess board on square 32 you’d have to put down over 2billion grains of wheat on that square alone. By the time you get to the end of the chess board the cumulative total that the king would have had to pay would be nearly 18.5 quintillion grains of wheat.

The inventor knew what he was asking for — he wasn’t foolish but the king was foolish enough to think that he could sustain the request without ever really thinking it through.

So, as you are thinking about your business or your personal development plan is your growth plan both ambitious and sustainable? If it’s not maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board.


Source: medium.com

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