Dear Barnacle Bill ...
I like the metaphor. What I'm not sure about is how well it illustrates the situation -- fun, though.
Here's the challenge: Compare two companies of the same age. Both were lean, agile, nimble, and so on when they started. One stayed small -- successful enough to keep everyone happy, not so successful that it grew beyond a few hundred people. The other was terrifically successful and grew to more than 10,000 employees.
Compare the two for barnacles and what do you think you'd find?
In my experience, which is broad enough to give me some confidence and not so broad as to provide any certainty, barnacle-ness is more a function of size and success than of age. It's when business turns into bigness that the encrustations happen.
Even harder to deal with is this: Every so often, I run in to a very large company that has avoided the barnacles. They tend to be very badly run.
Big companies aren't just like small companies, only taller. They are different in fundamental ways. For example:
- In a small company, one person can entirely understand the company. In a large company, were a person to try to fully understand how things work, that person's head would explode.
- In a small company, most responsibilities are handled by one person, which means they're handled consistently without having to write anything down. In a large company, most responsibilities are handled by teams, and without documentation and training they'd be performed differently depending on which person performs them, often creating chaos in the process.
- In a small company, it's easy to build trust because everyone knows everyone else as a person. In a large company, many business processes involve people who have never met each other.
- In a small company, the CEO can understand everything important about what's happening in the company by walking around and chatting with people. In a large company, were the CEO to take this approach, his or her children would reach retirement age before the first loop was completed, which means CEOs and other corporate executives have to rely on indirect forms of organizational listening to get a handle on things.
It takes more overhead to run a large company than a small one, but this doesn't mean there aren't barnacles a-plenty. It means distinguishing between a barnacle and a rivet can be more difficult than you might think.