The Difference Between Growth and Development

A rubbish heap can grow but it does not develop.

R. L. Ackoff

We often hear the words growth and development used together. They are used to describe the success, or lack of success, in reaching personal goals as well as corporate goals. If you are interested in incorporating some of these concepts into successful leadership, you may find this Welch Way training called Leadership in Action very useful. They’re also used across many disciplines such as biology and economics. Living things grow and develop. Economies and businesses can exhibit growth and development.

Growth and development get lumped together so frequently, it can be easy to assume that they go hand in hand and happen at the same time. So what is the difference?


To put it simply, when something grows in shows an increase in something you can count. A tree can grow. That means that it adds to its height. We can count the inches it has grown. An organization can grow, adding people or other groups to itself. These are counted very easily. Profit can grow, adding money in different ways.

None of this takes into account how it grows. Growth doesn’t look into what it took to add to its height or its numbers or its bank statement. Growth is only shown through the evidence of it happening. The tree may have been fertilized, accelerating its natural process. The organization may have added to its numbers through some kind of coercion, making people join, or merging with another organization. Profit may have increased due to some kind of accounting gimmick or even illegal claims. Economic growth is typically just a number, often GDP (gross domestic product), but it is often the only thing that is touted as a measure of success.

If you’d like to dive deeper into understanding economics, this class, Economics Without Boundaries, is very comprehensive in its scope, and taught by economist and best-selling author, David McWilliams. He covers some brief economic history and gets into the source of our most recent economic crisis. If you are curious to see the direct economic impact of growth without development, this should prove very interesting indeed.

Growth by itself, however, can’t measure development. If we only look at the height of a person, it may be easy to assume they are an adult. When I was in grade school, a classmate of mine was over six feet (two meters) tall when he was just 11 years-old. If we only look at how tall he was, he would be considered an adult. But at that age, my classmate wasn’t developed enough in his thinking, let alone emotional maturity, to be considered an adult. There is a huge difference.


So what is development? Development encompasses many things but it is shown by the qualitative improvement of circumstances. This means that as something develops the quality of the whole improves. As a tree develops, it will not only grow, but also be able to reproduce, bear fruit, be healthy and continue growing. If an organization develops, they might improve how it interacts with its members, what kind of influence it holds in its community, or it can streamline certain processes to meet the overall needs of people that are involved. If an economic situation develops, not only can profits increase, but, for corporations, the workers conditions are improved, difficulties in operations get resolved, individual employees can be trained beyond their current station, which in turn helps the company. Economic development in a community or country leads to better overall living standards and opportunities to improve.

Though growth and development may affect each other, they are not dependent on each other. Growth may happen despite any development. Development can happen but there may actually be little growth. Ideally, of course, both will be evident. Sometimes, if something is not growing, it needs to develop to get to that growth. If something cannot develop, there may need to be growth in a certain area, like income, before anything can be done to improve the overall situation. And if either one is absent, growth without development or development without growth, then whatever it is is in danger. The organism may sick or die, a company can go out of business, an organization may dissolve or get taken over by a different organization.

From these examples, its possible to see that growth and development are not the same. There’s a great post over on Diffen that lays out some differences of economic development versus economic growth in an easy to understand way.

And of course, setting goals and accomplishing them always provides an enormous sense of satisfaction. If you are happening to look into a great way to accelerate your own personal growth and development, can out this course on goal setting and this course on finding the building willpower.

Hopefully, this clarifies the most obvious differences between the term growth and development and can point you toward some resources that will aid you toward better understanding!