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Businesses that tighten up get hurt

Companies age, just like people, and they'll tighten up unless they have the right planning, the right exercises and the right precautions.

6 min read


Businesses that tighten up get hurt


Inflation. Recession. Marketplace disruptions. Supply chain interruptions. There’s no shortage of things to tense up about these days. But as every skier will tell you, it’s when you tighten up that you get hurt. I should know, having once broken my leg on the slopes.

Skiers have to keep their knees bent as they continually shift their center of gravity based on the nature and condition of the terrain they’re traversing. Lose your focus and a slick spot or mogul will take you down — or into a tree. Fortunately, in my case, it was only the former.

The same is true in all sports. Runners pull their hamstrings. Swimmers tear their rotator cuffs. Tennis players get tennis elbow. Stiffening up is a problem every aging athlete — especially armchair athletes — has to deal with. But not to the same degree.

“You don’t get old and get stiff. You get stiff and then you get old.”

That’s a thought-provoking quote I came across in “The Founder’s Mentality,” a book written by two of my favorite authors, Chris Zook and James Allen. The older I get, the more I witness the truth of that statement — in life and in business.

Technically, of course, as we age, our joints do become stiffer and our muscles less flexible, as our cartilage grows more rigid, our ligaments shorten, and our body produces less of the synovial fluid that acts like motor oil to lubricate it all. To some extent, it’s inevitable, but the degree and timing of our stiffening up is anything but.

Medical experts say that the longer we can remain flexible, the more we can slow down the aging process. To a life that could add years. To a business it could add decades.

That’s notable when you consider the average lifespan of most companies. There’s a reason “organization” and “organism” come from the same root word. Corporations, like human beings, are born, they age, and they die. But unlike people, they have widely varying life expectancies.

It probably wouldn’t be hard for you to name a company that’s more than 100 years old. You may be able to call to mind a few that are more than 200 years old. And believe it or not, a handful of corporations have lasted more than 1,000 years. But that’s not the norm.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says only 36% of companies survive for 10 years, and only about 20% make it to their 20th birthday. The vast majority don’t survive past the first generation. Regardless of their age, it’s tragic when once-thriving companies begin to take their health for granted, stiffen up and wind up breaking a hip — or worse.

Just as when human beings get old and stiff (or stiff and old, as the case may be), companies that tighten up are no longer able to move as quickly. They have trouble righting themselves when they get knocked off balance. That may not always result in a fall down the stairs, but, at the very least, stiff organizations are easily outrun by their competitors.

As Zook and Allen say, “As companies grow in size and complexity, they lose the dexterity and the flexibility they need to sustain growth.”

As with all helpful metaphors, common advice given to people to prevent stiffening up also applies to companies that wish to remain agile.

Here are five suggestions if you – and your business – don’t want to tighten up:

Watch your weight

Excess weight strains our joints and muscles and is a significant risk factor for developing arthritis. Make sure to keep your staffing lean, you debt under control, your productivity growing and your office supply purchases in check. That last one may sound silly, but one Hershey’s Kiss a day could add three or four pounds a year to your frame. Good health is a result of good habits.

Keep moving

The more you exercise, the less likely your joints and muscles are to get stiff. Companies that become complacent grow rigid. Assuming the way things have been is the way they’re always going to be is a sure sign your company is asleep, and the longer you sleep the stiffer you get. Wake up each morning ready to challenge every aspect of your business model, knowing that someone else is already doing so.


Water makes up more than half our body weight and is the stuff of life for every cell and sinew. Proper hydration helps your joints absorb shock and boosts endurance. Similarly, a healthy business needs to continually take in fresh stores of insight and information.

You can’t rely on taking a sip only when you feel thirsty; by then you may already be dehydrated. Find a way to ensure there is a constant flow of new ideas into your organization.


Stretching is uncomfortable, but there’s nothing better you can do to maintain flexibility. Set challenging goals and invest the time and effort necessary to achieve them. Just remember that getting — and staying — loose takes time. Flexibility isn’t something you can achieve in one sitting, and if you try, you’re likely to cause a pull or a tear. That will set you back even further.

Try some heat

A hot shower can help loosen up tight joints and muscles by getting your blood flowing. Heating pads can also do the trick and can be applied where the need is greatest. If you’re feeling like your company is stiffening up, find a way to turn up the heat on the development of new ideas.

A 90-year-old friend of mine said his biggest regret was that he didn’t focus on maintaining his flexibility earlier in life. He also says he can predict the onset of storms based on how achy his joints are.

Joint pain does, in fact, seem to get worse when barometric pressure falls, which tends to happen just before a storm. And it’s during a storm when we need to be able to move as nimbly as possible.

There are a lot of gathering storms that might cause our companies to slip, trip or otherwise lose their balance. Some we may see coming; others will be a surprise. Either way, remaining flexible can keep us from taking a tumble.

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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