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Figuring Out Your Limits

This is an excerpt from Masc #31 about understanding your limits and limits in general.

For those who are new, I try to alternate between issues devoted to hard-hitting cultural analysis and those that are more practical in nature. This issue is one of the latter.

There’s a common S-curve, used for purposes ranging from analyzing industries to technologies, to products, to social movements that illustrate their general life cycle.

Industry Life Cycle

Image Credit: Adaptive Cycle, CC BY-SA

There’s the introduction/early adopter phase, then the growth (or hyper-growth) phase, then maturity, and finally, decline.

Assuming your business makes it out of the introduction and into the growth phase, you find yourself in a pretty heady place. It feels good to be riding that growth curve upward. But at some point, you know you are doing to plateau or hit maturity. But where is that point? And is there anything you can do about it?

In some cases, you can easily determine when you are going to hit your ceiling. For example, if you are a retailer who is expanding by opening stores, you can pretty much project when you are going to reach geographic saturation in the United States. Forewarned is forearmed, so you can make plans to address this (expand internationally, add a new kind of store to the portfolio, or switch to “operator mode”).

But what if you don’t know what exactly is going to cause your growth to a plateau? A very insightful blog post from last year by Eugene Wei labeled this unknown factor an “invisible asymptote.” Wei was formerly a strategic planning analyst for Amazon. Here’s what he had to say:

One of the most difficult things to forecast was our adoption rate…. It didn’t take long for me to see that our visibility out a few months, quarters, and even a year was really accurate (and precise!). What was more of a puzzle, though, was the long-term outlook. Every successful business goes through the famous S-curve, and most companies, and their investors, spend a lot of time looking for that inflection point towards hockey-stick growth. But just as important, and perhaps less well studied, is that unhappy point later in the S-curve, when you hit a shoulder and experience a flattening of growth. … For so many startups and even larger tech incumbents, the point at which they hit the shoulder in the S-curve is a mystery, and I suspect the failure to see it occurs much earlier. The good thing is that identifying the enemy sooner allows you to address it. We focus so much on product-market fit, but once companies have achieved some semblance of it, most should spend much more time on the problem of product-market unfit.For me, in strategic planning, the question in building my forecast was to flush out what I call the invisible asymptote: a ceiling that our growth curve would bump its head against if we continued down our current path. It’s an important concept to understand for many people in a company, whether a CEO, a product person, or, as I was back then, a planner in finance.

Finding your invisible asymptote is mission-critical to the long-term success of your organization. Since many of you are pastors, I’ll note it applies directly to church planting and launching ministries. Assuming your church plant made it to basic sustainability and is growing, at what point it will that growth simply peter out and leave you with a viable congregation but one that’s size is far less than what you originally hoped? Or what if you are trying to attract people to a ministry your church runs, or run an online business, or grow your company’s business line? There are many, many situations in which it would be extremely helpful to know where you are going to hit your ceiling prior to actually doing it so that you can take appropriate action.

Wei notes that Amazon discovered its most important invisible asymptote early: shipping fees. Amazon Prime became in many ways the company’s killer app. His post is well worth reading in its entirety, even though it’s tech-focused. You can see him analyze the future of Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, and Amazon itself through this lens.

I can very much relate to the experience of hitting the invisible asymptote. I built up a fairly sizeable Twitter following over the years. For a long time my follower count was on a growth trajectory, then it plateaued towards an asymptote. Today I have around 21,000 followers, but it doesn’t seem likely to grow much, and certainly not fast, even were I to go back on the platform.

Why did I hit that plateau? I don’t know. It could be because Twitter itself flat lined in growth. That’s probably part of it. It could be that I saturated my market. It could be that the market I’m part of (urban policy of a particular type related to economic development, infrastructure, architecture and design, branding, etc.) itself reached maturity. I also think that’s part of it. But I can’t claim to fully explain it. Had I built an actual model of growth, I’d probably know more. But at the end of the day I failed to identify the limiting factor in my reach, much less take action to solve it.

One thing I suspect played a role in my twitter scenario is one that is relevant to a lot of these cases: network exhaustion. That is, my popularity spread through networks, and at some point I reached the end of my networks. All of the interconnected networks of which I thought I participated really formed a single interconnected but closed system.

We see this problem illustrated in Sean Safford’s dissertation “Why the Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngtown.” Safford looked at two cities with large steel industry concentrations, Allentown and Youngstown, that had both been devastated by plant closings. Yet Allentown adjusted much better than Youngstown. Why was that? Safford concluded that it had to do with the differing structures of their social networks:

This paper seeks to understand why these two places which shared remarkably similar histories have proceeded down such different post-industrial trajectories since the 1980s….I argue that the differences in the underlying structure of inter-organizational relationships in the two cities shaped the strategic choices and possibilities for mobilization among key organizational actors and that these differences were the source of the region’s economic divergence. Specifically, I show that differences in the relationship between two kinds of inter-organizational networks – one economic, the other civic – combined in different ways which ultimately facilitated beneficial interactions in Allentown and precluded them in Youngstown. In Allentown, civic relationships tied actors who were not otherwise economically connected while in Youngstown civic ties compounded connections among actors who were already economically well connected. [emphasis added]

In other words, civic organizations in Allentown connected the economic elite to others in the community. But in Youngstown civic organizations were dominated by economic elites and thus the civic organizations, though separate entities, just reinforced existing networks rather than creating new ones. Other people were left out, unconnected. For our purposes, the Youngstown type system could create the illusion, if you were connected both to the economic network and the civic network, that you were connected to two separate networks, when in reality you were connected to only a single real network.

It’s very easy to see how this effect can come into play in Christian circles. For example, let’s say I’m connected to John Piper’s network (Desiring God) and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood network and the 9Marks network. I think I’m accessing all of these networks, but the fact is they overlap enormously. All of the networks in conservative Reformed circles are highly interconnected and form a largely closed system. There’s a vast array of Christian networks to which these groups are mostly not connected. (Even just within lower Manhattan, Evangelical churches and people are not nearly as connected with each other as you might think). So if you are trying to reach Christians and you are starting in Reformed circles, one of your asymptotes is this closed network structure.

A guy who saw this kind of problem coming a mile away and took preventive action was Tim Keller. Keller’s Redeemer is a big and successful megachurch, but his ambition was to reach New York City (and beyond) for Christ. Obviously no one church, even a multi-site one, could do that. So he decided to plant other churches.

Here’s where the ceiling comes into play. Keller’s church is part of the Presbyterian Church in America. He could have, and did, start other Presbyterian churches. But he realized that for matters of style or perhaps ethnicity (e.g., Korea is heavily Presbyterian so Koreans in NYC might respond well to Presbyterianism, but other countries might be more Anglican or Pentecostal meaning that churches of those types might be more likely to appeal to those ethnic groups in New York), that focusing solely on Presbyterianism would limit the number of people he could reach. It would set the ceiling. So he started supporting and funding church plants of many different kinds of Protestant churches. That allowed him to tap into networks and resources he never otherwise would have been able to access. He also believed that to have a movement that would reach the city, there needed to be some number of other (four to eight) church planting movements going on as well, along with other networks springing up linking Christians horizontally in groupings such as professions. He lays this all out in his 2010 Lausanne Conference plenary talk which is must-see TV. The relevant part starts at 13:00 but really you should watch the whole thing. He saw that he had to reach beyond his own local networks. His vision hasn’t fully been implemented or come to pass, obviously. But he clearly took action on several elements of it.

Interestingly, one of the groups of Keller critics consists of Presbyterians who say he’s ignoring his own denomination and watering down its confession of faith in order to partner with these other groups. That’s a legitimate argument to make (though not my personal position), and gets at the kinds of decisions and trade-offs we have to make when faced with a growth asymptote situation. In this case, Keller made a conscious, strategic decision that reaching more people with a core gospel message was more important than having the most elaborate and pure statement of faith. Others might make different choices. Growth is not our only consideration after all.

I was thinking of this topic while considering the Masculinist. I got a big boost two years ago when Rod Dreher linked me. Then I doubled my subscriber count last year. But I suspect that network exhaustion will hit me, and probably sooner rather than later. The kinds of people who would respond well to the things I’m writing are probably all connected internally with each other, but not as well externally. Hence I could spread like wildfire through those networks then hit the wall.

Now for me, having the most subscribers isn’t my goal. I’d change lot of things if all I wanted were sheer numbers. This isn’t a startup that needs to pivot and pivot until it finds some totally unrelated product that will sell. It’s a matter of mission for me. But obviously I’d like to have more readers rather than less and hopefully a lot more than I have today.

So I have an ask of all of you. The absolute best way you can contribute to the success of the Masculinist is to share it with others. Many of you have already been doing that, so I greatly appreciate it. My ask is that you try to think of people outside of your core network, and especially outside of Reformed Christian circles, to which you can spread the word. If you could pick your favorite article of relevance from the archives and share it with the people most remote from your core networks and most different from you that you believe might find it of interest, I’d greatly appreciate it.

And remember, my offer is to connect you with other local readers of the Masculinist. You might already know or be connected to those people, but maybe not. And if not it could be a bridge for you into an entirely new network of relationships you’d never been a part of before. So please email me your name and city if you are interested.

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