Soundness, profitability, or growth. Pick any two.

In everything there is a choice and in everything there is a tradeoff. There is an old adage in bicycling that highlights the choice/tradeoff decision: “Light, strong, or cheap. Pick any two.” When buying parts you can have them light and strong (but it’ll be expensive), strong and cheap (but it’ll be heavy), or light and cheap (but it’ll be weak). It’s up to the individual to decide what’s most important to them.

The same is true in business, even though it goes largely unrecognized. We can just as easily say: “Soundness, profitability, or growth. Pick any two.” We can be stable an profitable (though growth will be slow), profitable and fast growing (at the cost of soundness), or sound and growing (but won’t have much left over as profit). The challenge is, that because we don’t recognize this tradeoff, we try to create a business that is stable, has great profits, and is quickly expanding. Trying to maximize all three at once is impossible – at best one (or more) of the three will suffer, but be hidden. For example, the business may be highly profitable and expanding nicely and appear stable, until that first bump in the market highlights just how overleveraged the company is. At worst, the business is neither sound, nor profitable, nor able to grow.

Correct me if I’m off base here, but it seems that Wall Street rewards maximum profitability and growth, generally at the expense of soundness. Yet, the truly enduring companies (whether we’re talking about a sole propritership or multinational giant) – the ones that survive the cycles of recession – are the ones that best understand this tradeoff and keep soundness in the mix, switching focus on profits or growth as their strategy warrants.

In business, as in personal life, it always comes down to opportunity costs. By understanding what you really want, you have a much better handle on the strategy to pursue. As wonderful as it sounds, it’s a recipe for disaster to try and create soundness, profitablity, and growth simultaneously.

That’s the theory anyway. I’d love to hear about examples that poke holes in the theory (I sure can’t think of any).

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