Rigor Corpus is my term to reflect what happens to companies as they grow. Like a body, the grow inflexible and all progress slows. Like Rigor Mortis… get it?
In 2021 I left my job with a Fortune 100 company for a small company. It put me in an incredible spot to relive the rise of the first company, looking for the signs of inflexibility that ground progress to a halt. Maybe I could make a difference this time.
My old company had 80,000 employees. 16 years prior this massive organization had purchased a small business I worked for. At that time, we had about 50 people and the main org had about 20,000. Our small business was in a field the massive org wanted to move into. At first, the larger company viewed us as being an agile alternative. We would provide solutions much faster than the larger corporate structures could. We became a sort of lab where ideas could be explored. Over time, more and more services became provided and controlled by the parent company. Each change created a bit more friction against progress. When I resigned: the corporation had 80,000 employees, the original small business had been completely assimilated, and all vestiges of agility gone.
In contrast, my new company was much smaller, almost back to the beginning. We had 125 employees, many of which were field service workers. This new company has a very aggressive growth model and in my first year we more than doubled in size. Part of the growth comes from acquisitions. We would regularly purchase and merge in smaller entities.
I realized this gave me a great opportunity. I could bring my experience with becoming rigid to my current situation. Our small company is rapidly assimilating others and I can watch for signs of increasing friction. Because of our small scale, I can actually see all the parts and how they are reacting to the change. I am also on the other side of the acquisitions. Best of all I can try to devise ways around it. My goal is to keep the agility of the startup going as long as possible.
I’ve gathered this under the term inflexibilitas negotii, inflexibility of business. As companies get bigger and bigger, they become less flexible. They become set in their ways, and innovation slows down, and sometimes they’re overtaken by startups that can turn on a dime and overall be very nimble.
Consider the act of standing up two different server environments (real example). At the new company I recently stood up a cloud-based environment for a new system. I was able to get approval in two meetings and the use of a company credit card. The decision to go forward took about an hour. When I was with the large corporation, this process could take between 6 months and a year. The process was so bad. By the end of the approval process the technologies may have changed and you would have to go back and do a lot of it over again. It would be comical if it wasn’t so painful.
I’ve had a few initial thoughts on why this happens. These are very broad and I expect my thinking to evolve over time.
Those farther from the work establish direction. Executives have no choice but to focus on the high level. Unfortunately, this can mean setting bad direction with the best intent.
Companies force economy of scale by centralizing certain functions. This can work in many places. Finding the right places to force it is the trick. Companies may come close to doing it right by not touching the “secret sauce”, the thing that makes their company excellent. Unfortunately, they may focus on the supporting activities, indirectly hurting the best processes. In the example above: the product development team was still able to be responsive and agile, but building the systems to support that agility had become very rigid.
As companies gain wealth, they become risk averse and have more to lose from missteps. This can lead to being overly cautious, and invoking its manifestation of crippling processes. In contrast, a startup has no real choice and must accept more risk (with the prospect of greater rewards).
Everybody wants to do more with less. It’s very easy to see the impact that has on your outward facing services, but the support levels behind that can be pressured to make cuts or not expand as quickly because they are not directly tied to revenue. That in turn becomes a sort of invisible anchor on the rest of the company, slowly dragging it to a halt. When I company gets big enough, the focus can shift from what is best for the customers and employees to something called shareholder value.
So here’s my self-imposed mandate moving forward. I’m going to seek out signs of rigidity, document what I find, and determine if countermeasures can be taken to prevent it. Stay tuned.