The Drowning Stage: Battling the Tide

by | Dec 2, 2022 | Growth Acceleration, Scaling and Acceleration

How To Move Beyond The Deluge

In our first blog, we introduced a new map to help identify where your company is and a path to more quickly get to where you want to go. By way of review, the map identified six destinations of companies from Start Up to Legacy.  These six are:  PlantingDrowning, Grinding, Scattering, Evolving, and Transcending.

The Drowning Stage is the second destination we are unfolding in more detail.  As before we will identify each destination’s signs, paths, obstacles, and states of heart.  At a 30,000-foot view, below is what the destination of Drowning looks like: 

Now, we will drill down into “Downing” to help it come to life. 

Drowning Stage:  The Obstacles and the Paths 

Drowning is a destination or “state” that can take place at both new and mature companies.  Companies often experience “drowning” when new initiatives, products, or services start to gain acceptance in the market. Things seem smooth until the first problems pop up in the process. 

Suddenly there is very little time to troubleshoot what is happening. Often rapid growth is straining the process and revealing a breakdown. Customers and staff are not happy. Where exactly is the failure? Why did it happen? What is the cause? Companies that are “Drowning”, often exhibit an air of heroism and a sense of busyness.  

Drowning starts with early success 

Early stage success can become unsustainable because there were not enough resources allocated to meet the demand.Scaling is not commonly thought of with new initiatives as as there is no assurance that each one will work. Yes, early success is a good problem to have, but it can still be a problem—the alarm sounds really loud when customer issues stack up. 

We have seen this play out in a number of ways.  There was a company experiencing rapid growth with a 24/7 data center network for  financial institutions. Growth was happening rapidly which created a growing number of calls into the help center.  This escalated to a high volume of irate customers calling to complain about connectivity.  In this space, outage meant people could not access their money.  Hold times grew, reaching 20 minutes long. 

The front-line staff was becoming overwhelmed.  The starting point to understand what was happening was to spend time and listen to the staff.  They were feeling deluged and defeated.  They knew there were issues, but did not have the time to figure out what, or how things could be different.  

The outgoing manager had indicated the only way to solve the issue was to add 8 new staff members.  While that may have provided relief, there was no sense of what was broken.  This lead to the second step, mapping out the current process and systems.  It took time, and patience, and—with no increase of staff, hold times were reduced to only 20 seconds. An outside look and a path forward made the dramatic solution.

From a one-off to efficiency:  

Often when producing or executing only a few items, you don’t need high efficiency and the process is not well thought out. What decisions were made, or not made? Planning, which seems like a luxury at this point, is a key to getting out of drowning, but there are some obstacles to overcome. 

Obstacle 1:  Focus on the Urgent versus the Important

Early success certainly brings feelings of pride and excitement to the heart, but when problems emerge, these same sentiments can morph into disbelief and shock. No one likes the feeling of being caught off guard, and no company likes to come up short or unprepared. The element of surprise usually causes quick reactions under pressure. This reactive stance can create conflict, inconvenience, and lack of focus. It becomes clear that an atmosphere of urgency overwhelms staff as every task appears to be the number one priority. This reshuffling soon replaces an important asset – a proactive mindset, putting customer expectations on the back burner.  

Urgency Trap symptoms:

How can you tell if you have fallen into the Urgency Trap? A strong symptom is that no time has been allocated to improvement. The pressure to keep up at all costs intensifies, and feelings of defeat set in. Customers are not receiving what they asked for. Staff feels stressed and desperate. Morale dips, and collaborative teamwork becomes difficult. 

Obstacle 2:  Single point of failure 

Processes often have single points of failure, and if not detected, can stop an entire system. How can one problem be solved before another mishap, or even bigger crisis happens? Were there any reviews of potential malfunctions to consider? What was overlooked? The state of the heart of both leaders and staff can easily become overwhelmed. 


Rapid growth or quick changes can be the set up for overwhelm and create single points of failure.  We helped a company experiencing rapid growth and lots of transitioning staff.  Senior staff had been moved to work on mission critical issues, taking with them the knowledge and experience to implement the company’s product.  What ensued in short order was a backlog of hundreds of implementation projects—for a 40-person team to complete.


The backlogged projects represented signed contracts where clients had paid to be implemented.  These customers became very unhappy and so did the staff. The staff was determined, but the project timelines started to get worse as more work piled up.  The first step was to understand what was causing the backlog and project timelines to grow.  We listened to the staff to understand the current system. 


What was discovered was that over 85% of the staff were fairly new hires (under 6 months).  The staff didn’t have the full knowledge or training of each step in the process, nor were they aware of the requirements. They were trying hard to do their best with the slim knowledge they were absorbing on the fly. 

Our assessment was that more than training was needed.  The process to move a project from start to finish was complex.  Asking any person to understand each element from start to finish with all its complexity was not reasonable.  We helped to define segments of expertise and focus the work into teams where each team member mastered a segment. 


The team members, as they successful implemented a project were able to teach, collaborate, and learn from each other. Within 18 months, the large backlog was not only cleared, but excess capacity had been created. An outside look and a new system helped an overwhelmed staff become effective. This resulted in even more capacity and efficiency. 

Failure point symptoms:

Feelings of defeat deplete the strength of staff and cause an inability to focus and troubleshoot. Processes have single points of failure. Proactively seeking solutions seems difficult and frustrating. 

Obstacle 3:  The Hero Trap

Although the many characteristics of a hero: bravery, courage, integrity, honesty, confidence, etc., are good, the mindset can actually be a bad thing for a team. Heroic action discourages collaboration and multi-perspective teamwork that offers greater job satisfaction. In today’s world, collaboration and teamwork is critical. Having teams that are empowered to work and solve problems helps create new synergies.  

Hero Trap symptoms:

A symptom that your organization fell into the hero trap can be seen when certain staff are “wearing capes”, and often not letting others help. Many people enjoy the applause that a hero receives and some individuals feel they perform their best when they go it alone. Their mantra increasingly becomes, “I am the only one who can do it. I know what’s best. I have the most experience.” These mindsets often coincide with an old school heroic or autocratic leadership style that is the antithesis of a healthy team.

Obstacle 4:  Penny wise/pound foolish Trap

Sometimes the heart can be stubborn and stingy when it comes to counting the cost or investing for the short term. It may be tempting to have something done, or a system in place, to save only a small amount of money—now. Without diligent planning, that very decision to save a few dollars in the short term could cost a far larger amount of money later.

Penny Wise Trap symptoms:

You’ll know you fell into this trap when the fear of costs or short-term investments are ignored. Fear can impair reason and prevent adequate long range planning.

Impacts of the Obstacles and Traps in the Drowning Stage

Each obstacle and its associated trap comes at a cost.  Here are some of the main items to look out for:

Customer Complaints:

You’ve heard “the customer is king.” Maintaining top efficiency and high quality customer service is crucial for growing and keeping a customer base. Grievances, grumbling, and criticism from customers are more than red flags that need addressing; they are important clues to finding flaws and rectifying problems in the system. Determine what needs to change, whether it be time constraints, allotment of resources, staff training, process, effort, morale, or something else. 

Missed Deliverables:

Hits are always more appreciated than misses. No one likes a missed deadline or missed internal or external deliverable. Well-thought planning hits the target more often than not. Striving for order creates stability. Delays cause dysfunction and chaos.

Staff Burn-Out:

Organizations that focus on too many things at one time run the risk of burning out their staff. This can be seen in employee tenure, turnover, and in projects left languishing. Without a break or interval in sight, the staff can run out of steam.

Sales Outpacing Delivery/Back Ups in Deliver Schedules:

A good problem to have, but not always easy to solve without adequate resources and planning for contingencies.   

Paths to move from Obstacles to Results:

So what are the paths to take that will get out of the drowning stage?  The five paths to getting your head back above water include: 

 1. Capacity and Resource Planning:

Having “enough” tends to lead to satisfaction. How do you know when you have enough materials, services or workforce? When there is a well-thought out plan for high efficiency, and a proven strategy for building capacity, there is potential for enough to increase competency, production and to scale.

2. Leveraging Process Improvement:

No one wants to stay dunked or submerged in a complicated process. Empowering and encouraging staff to share their experiences and perspective can reveal how things might change for the better.

3. Cross Development of Staff:

Training of staff to know different jobs or roles is prudent and can help develop effective collaborative teamwork. It can also provide resources and strategy for contingency scenarios and succession planning. The workforce becomes empowered, engaged, challenged, and united. Morale is high with a feeling of “we’re in this together.”

4. Develop Proactive Mindsets:

Another path is to create a training/mentoring program that teaches staff to identify and prevent potential problems. A proactive mindset that challenges (instead of a reactive mindset) can help staff feel in control. It also increases job satisfaction.

5. Automate Proven Process:

Drowning indicates loss of control. A focus to develop new ways to improve areas, such as accountability, speed, transparency, and/or accuracy is crucial. Time spent evaluating and systematizing can lead to greater performance, production and efficiency. 

Drowning Stage Success: 

The Drowning Stage is a very challenging and uncomfortable destination for a company to be in. The sooner you get out of the rough waters, the better. The staff will move from an air of heroism or busyness to one of feeling encouraged and back in control. The team will be meeting or exceeding customer expectations, plus have margin in their schedules. Planning, which felt like a luxury before, is now part of every process. New paths have been created and systems run smoother than before. These results will show that your company has risen above the waves.

Proverbs 21:5 The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, 

but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty.


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