Lily Pads and the Science of Growth

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 2.31.34 PM

Screen Shot 2014-09-01 at 2.31.34 PM

  See if you can solve this stumper:
There is a pond with one lily pad on it. The number of lily pads doubles every day so on the second day there are two lily pads, on the third day four and so on. On day 30, the pond is completely covered. On what day is the pond 50% covered?

ANSWER: As you surely surmised, the answer is 29 days. It’s a neat little problem isn’t it? The nature of the question subtly implies it’s a mathematical one and many get lost in the weeds of starting from the bottom up. Others may realize that that is an impossible approach without knowing the size of the pond or a lily pad. The ones that succeed though recognize it’s not a math problem but a logic one. If the number of lily pads double each day and on the 30th day it is fully (i.e. 100%) covered, it stands to reason that the 30th day is double the previous day – or 50% on the 29th day.

So what is this example doing in a blog about talent management?  Well, a few things are striking. The first is how we solve problems.

Problem Solving
We face challenges every day and must make decisions with imperfect data. In fact, many of you have succeeded in your careers because you are able to make decisions with incomplete information and hammer clarity out of fog.  But are you getting too comfortable with your methodology?

It’s a survival behavior – find something that works and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The problem is if we aren’t vigilant, the processes that made us successful yesterday will break down in the future.

We see this happening with companies all the time. Their entire infrastructures are set up to see problems in one way which in turn leads to groupthink on the solution: cut costs, outsource, acquire the competition, ignore industry trends, lobby politicians to block innovative competitors with taxes, update the marketing approach. And it works for a while, until it doesn’t and suddenly Kodak is out of business or the American car industry needs a bail out.

How do we avoid that with our own companies, departments and learning programs? Leaders have to hire and reward people with diverse opinions and listen to them. They have to pause and ask themselves if their own assumptions about an issue are the right ones or is there a more obvious, simpler approach that would be effective? A pause at the start, though very difficult to enact when speed is of the essence, is a much more efficient solution than trying to fix falling market share at the end.

Managing Growth Aside from a perspective on problem-solving, the lily pad example beautifully illustrates something else that we face on a daily basis.

If the pond is fully covered on day 30 and 50% on day 29, it follows that on day 24, less than one week before 100% saturation, the pond is 1.5% topped with lily pads.  It also implies that for well over 3/4 of the month, the lily pads are nearly imperceptible.  Then suddenly at day 24, the growth is both visible, noticeable and seemingly unstoppable.  4 days after a barely noticeable trend in the corner, the pond is 25% covered and a 2 days later, it is fully saturated.

Exponential growth is incredibly fascinating, isn’t it?  From star formation to disease, climate change to technological progress – we can see the pattern repeating over and over.  Something is simmering beneath our notice and then suddenly it’s there, compelling our attention.  Take that last example, the progress of technology, and think about the amazing innovations over the millennia.  From the creation of tools to the printing press to the cotton gin ushering in the Industrial Revolution, humankind has been remarkably successful in pushing through the boundaries of our natural environment.  Something clicked in the 20th century however, and the rate of change exploded.  We went from horse drawn carriages and the telegraph to landing a spacecraft on Mars and sending emoticons to friends on devices more powerful than the computers used to send the first rocket to space.  What took us tens, even hundreds of thousands of years to develop was dwarfed by what we did in 100.  That’s just plain cool.

Let’s apply that to the pace of change within business.  There has always been pioneers and laggards when it comes to accepting change.  Surely there were people who eschewed light bulbs in favor of candles just as there are people who prefer vinyl over MP3s.  But for perhaps the first time, we risk leaving vast numbers of our population behind as we streak into the future.  We implore employees to accept that we live in constant whitewater, to adapt to an environment where we don’t have the comfort of knowing what comes next or even what’s going on in the present.  Our leaders often continue to believe that if they say it once, people will believe it.  With our environment swirling around us like a Category 10 hurricane, organizational cultures are hunkering down, placing more value in the grapevine than the leadership town halls.

Many are going to come through just fine – the right alchemy of leadership, preparation and employee readiness is in place to not only weather the change but to embrace it as an elemental advantage.  If everyone else is going to wait for a lull in the storm, we’re going to use change to secure our place at the top of the wave.

Of course, many won’t.  A wise old dictum states “Culture eats change for breakfast”.  In an upcoming dispatch, I’ll explore what companies and learning organizations can do to incorporate change into their culture instead of being something that needs to be reacted to, permanently outside.

In the meantime, I would like to hear from you – what are you doing to manage explosive growth?

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