Limits To Growth: When Pushing Harder Doesn’t Do The Job

When Facing Resistance Don’t Push Harder, Remove The Limiting Factors

With Growth Comes Resistance

There are limits to growth. We see this in health, relationships, work performance or business. Product sales stagnate after flying high. Teams or individuals improve until they plateau. The changes in your diet help reduce weight until outcomes flatten. Plants grow until the pot is too small.

When facing resistance we tend to push harder. This is an understandable response since initial efforts worked out so well. We promote our products, even more, spend more time learning, prescribe more time for training, we monitor our eating habits even more diligently. However, this doesn’t work all too often. As Einstein said:

„We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.“

For Peter Senge, author of the 5th Discipline – The Art & Practice Of The Learning Organization, this is a common pattern you can see across many fields. In systems thinking these patterns are called archetypes. With systems thinking we have a discipline providing tools to see the big picture and the interrelationships between what might, at first, seem to be completely unrelated. Archetypes are the basic building blocks allowing to understand system dynamics. You can observe them in very different fields, from biology to economics, from management to psychology. Senge describes the discussed effect as the “limits to growth” archetype:

“In the early stages when you can see improvement, you want to do more of the same – after all, it’s working so well. When the rate of improvement slows down, you want to compensate by striving even harder. Unfortunately, the more vigorously you push the familiar levers, the more strongly the balancing process resists, and the more futile your efforts become.”

We are creatures of habit, so pushing the familiar levers doesn’t surprise. All we need here is a shift of perspective.

How To Achieve Leverage Instead

According to the “limits to growth” archetype, there are two loops that influence the current situation (see the illustration below). There is the reinforcing loop, including your efforts, that contribute to growths. On the other hand, there is a balancing loop, that counteracts your actions.

Balancing processes are jargon for factors, that limit your efforts. This can be burnt-out production capabilities explaining why sales stagnate. Further advertising won’t help. It might even worsen the situation. It can be a lack of willingness to engage in further training, because employees don’t see the value or like the way business is done currently. Metaphorically speaking balancing processes are like the plant pot, that doesn’t allow further growth.

Limits To Growth Archetype According To Peter Senge
Limits To Growth Archetype According To Peter Senge

At a certain point, growth stagnates because of these balancing processes. When pushing harder doesn’t work people often give up or lower their goals, but there is another way. To gain leverage, Senge argues, you will have to focus on the balancing factors. The factors that keep you in status quo. To create change then identify limiting factors and change them.

Remove The Limiting Factors

They say the best defense is a good offense. So if you can identify limiting factors early on, eliminate them, so they don’t influence your progress. I have to think of productivity right now. For me, preventable limiting factors are certain distractions I can eliminate with either blocking or working outside my home.

If limiting factors are in place, you can either alter the limiting factor, disconnect results from the slowing action, or disconnect the slowing action from the results.

  • So instead of more promotion, increase the production capabilities. This, in turn, will lead to just in time deliveries and good word of mouth for your product.
  • Instead of forcing yourself to keep track of every bit of your diet ask what limits your progress. Maybe adding some aerobic exercise helps regain momentum.
  • If your relationship got dusty, don’t spend more time with your partner to work it out. Maybe „higher leverage“ lies in allowing more private times. That, in turn, recreates some of that “friction”, that attracted you in the first place.
  • Instead of forcing yourself to work on your big project ask what limits your drive. Maybe you’re driving with your handbrake on. Maybe fear blocks the way to your goals. Try fear setting to loosen the handbrake and gain velocity.
  • Instead of inflating your argument and repeating it over and over, ask why your partner disagrees. Maybe the counter-argument can be resolved.
  • If every decision made in your organization waits for your approval, you are the bottleneck. Disconnect at least a part of the decisions from your approval. Delegate.
  • Feel free to add to this list in the comments.

The directive here is simple: Don’t push growth, remove the limiting factors, whenever possible.

Complement this article with Shifting the Burden – Why Quick Fixes Make Things Worse, and the 5th Discipline – The Art & Practice Of The Learning Organization by Peter Senge.

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