Development vs Growth

The climate crisis enveloping us right now is providing a teachable moment to explore the difference between development and growth.

Understanding the distinctions between what it means to grow and what it takes to develop might be critical to the survival of our planet — or at least ourselves. It might also be a way to add new and more sustainable value to our world.


The relentless pursuit of growth has long been a criticism of the dominant forms of capitalism. Growth implies expansion. It is based on the idea that value and scale are connected: more reach equals more value.

But the promise of growth is predicated on many flawed assumptions. The first of these was articulated by Donella Meadows in her seminal book and report on systems thinking appropriately titled: Limits to Growth . Meadows’ arguments are many and essentially point to how we can understand the constraints and limits of a system using the theories, methods and tools of systems thinking.

A core takeaway from this work is that our planet is finite and isn’t an endless, open system. When we understand systems we can better gauge our ability to work within them and when we exceed their capacity.

The Planetary Boundaries Framework, which focuses on the limits and constraints of social, and ecological systems draws on this work. It guides research into how we can evolve our societies, economies, and populations using a focus on sustainability and resilience without giving them up at the expense of growth.


Development is a more nuanced concept that speaks to ways we grow and evolve as people (or programs, policies, and organizations). Just as an adult isn’t a better human than a child, the idea of development embraces ways we transform over time. As I noted in a previous post:

“Is a 35-year-old a seven-times better five-year-old? When you’re ten are you twice the person you were when you were five? Why is it OK to praise a toddler for sharing, not biting or slapping their peers, and eating all their vegetables and weird to do it with someone in good mental health in their forties or fifties? It has to do with developmental thinking. It has to do with having a developmental mindset”

While we may indeed grow, growth is in service of the needs and functions of the organism (which could be an organization or community). Growth is not an end in itself. Its desirability is tied to its fit with sustainability.

I’ve seen this firsthand with businesses that were small, personable, and had great quality products and services that grew into a multi-chain store that loses their soul (and the quality and value that they initially provided). This is also a problem of scale, something that is commonly misunderstood.

(For an excellent book that looks at this issue, Paul JarvisCompany of One is worth the read).

Not everything scales well. Many things don’t scale at all. Development seeks evolution and growth in harmony with scale and the environment around you.

As noted above, this is an issue of mindset. If you can focus on the evolving value that we create for the planet, ourselves, and our community, our organizations, we can develop without having to achieve growth.

Metrics for Development

If we question the mindset we bring to a situation, it helps guide our performance metrics. My strategy for development might look much different than one designed for growth. I’m also more likely to support the design of systems — habits, practices, policies — that are developmental in nature.

Developmental Evaluation can help us. Using Principles-Focused Evaluation can help us too. Both of these approaches can help us anchor strategy to metrics that matter. Growth is not good or bad, rather it’s about clarity of whether it’s useful or not and for whom.

Too often, it’s useful for some of us and not the planet. This isn’t viable anymore.

Taking the time to be strategic, reflective, and purposive in selecting our metrics will also illuminate your strategy. Try it out.

Image Credit: Christine on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Development vs Growth”

  1. Might we more appropriately refer to the quest as being for “MORE” rather than for growth? And is the quest for more just a flaw in the character of humans?

  2. While that is undoubtedly an issue, I think we’d be better off if people said “more” instead of “growth”. What happens is that the beneficial and healthy aspects of what growth can mean in certain conditions are subsumed within a focus on more, bigger, and so on.

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