Leaders: Here's where you should tap the brakes to move faster
Few argue over the need for speed when responding and adapting to crisis and rapidly changing circumstances. For a few decades now, adapting to the rate of change has been the mantra in business writing and strategic thinking.
McKinsey's landmark research, captured in the book "Beyond Performance," boldly claims a causal relationship between an organization's ability to "align, execute, and renew faster than competitors" and financial success.
It's easy to swallow the dogma that has emerged around the "cult of speed" in our management thinking and teaching. Yet, it turns out the pursuit of speed in poorly designed systems exposes weaknesses and often precipitates project, strategy and organizational failure. Said simply, raw speed kills.
Sometimes you have to tap the brakes and slow down to ultimately move faster.
Management lessons from high school physics
Many of us will recall observing the spectacular collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in a high school physics class. Generations of students were exposed to this video as part of a lesson on the concept of resonance and vibrational frequency.
It turns out the resonance thesis was revised in favor of a newer concept and term -- aerodynamic flutter – in which the bridge suffered self-induced rocking aided by poor construction and design techniques that failed to take into account all the forces that would impact the bridge.
It's not a stretch to imagine the flutter effect wreaking havoc in our organizational systems. Much like a suspension bridge facing unexpected outside forces, the often self-induced pressures of confusing strategies, poorly conceived solutions and flawed decisions create out-of-control swirl around our people and organizations.
The pursuit of speed without consideration for whether the system and its participants can absorb the perturbations is potentially disastrous. It helps if leaders learn to gently apply the brakes in critical areas to minimize the odds of collapse.
4 areas where it pays for leaders to tap the brakes to go faster
1. Slow down the problem-solving process
The essence of what we do as managers and leaders is to solve problems intended to lead to better outcomes for stakeholders. Yet, a great deal of the work that passes for problem-solving in our organizations is not much more than jumping to politically expedient solutions, doing things the way we've always done them, or, as is most common, jumping to conclusions.
Slowing down and striving to understand the real problem is critical to moving faster in the right direction with solutions. Yet, everything in our organizational cultures rewards immediacy. Many managers value fast answers and quick-to-respond individuals. In these speed-obsessed cultures, there's little time for processing. Sadly, that marginalizes many smart individuals who need the added time to think through and around situations before offering ideas. I lose sleep over all the great ideas that fail to emerge in our speed-obsessed organizations.
Invest time in discussing and defining the problem from multiple perspectives. Use the question “What problem are we trying to solve here?” and frame the issue in different ways to generate different solutions. And importantly, use creative approaches that allow for input from diverse groups and that give time to those who prefer processing versus spontaneously generating ideas.
Pumping the breaks gently and introducing some creative discipline for novel or systemic issues will help teams strengthen problem-solving skills and, ultimately, help an organization minimize rework and move faster on strategy execution.
2. Rein in runaway group discussions
Think about your typical status meeting update that devolves into a debate after a problem surfaces. Or think about every problem-solving session you've been in that turned into a swirl of opinions, questionable facts and political perspectives.
There's nothing healthy about those discussions. Too often, nothing is accomplished or decided. Worse yet, some of the sessions end with a solution no one likes. It helps if you have a technique for corralling these runaway discussions and focusing people on the right issues.
My facilitation approach of choice is a personal variation of the parallel thinking process suggested by Edward de Bono in his book "Six Thinking Hats." I use the logic of parallel thinking, but not the hats, to help groups gain focus and start marching together on the right issues. It's powerful to observe a group shift from swirling around ideas and options and risks to begin focusing on the same topic simultaneously. (In my article "Better Design for Workplace Discussions," I offer my variation of de Bono's approach along with a practice suggestion.)
Regardless of your facilitation methodology, tapping the brakes on fast-moving, chaotic discussions and gaining the focus of your colleagues is essential to effective problem-solving. The same logic holds for those discussions where one individual dominates the dialog and approach while those with potentially better ideas sit, mute, hoping to be released from the torture. A group discussion is too valuable to waste.
3. Pause to assess decision-making quality
If, as I suggest above, problem-solving is the essence of what we do as managers and leaders, decision-making is the fuel that brings solutions to life. Nothing happens without a decision. Yet, as important as the work of decision-making is, we spend appallingly little time strengthening as decision-makers.
The need for speed pushes us to decide on the fly or attach data supporting our case to our recommendations and decisions. Our organization's culture wields enormous power over how decisions happen.
One of the actions you can take in addition to adopting the problem-solving ideas above is to invest time in assessing decision quality. I encourage business leaders to adopt a group journaling and review process for critical decisions.
A proper journal entry captures the salient data surrounding the decision process for key issues, including but not limited to problem statements, assumptions, options, the final choice and expectations. Additionally, the parties to a decision agree on a future review date to assess outcomes and identify strengths and challenges with the decision and process. One client has the parties to a decision sign the journal entry, creating personal and group accountability for the decision.
While the journal process focuses on continuous improvement, there’s a great deal more leaders can do to help groups and contributors strengthen their decision-making muscles. Invest in making improvements in this important work, and you will reduce the time spent flailing as groups question and reverse prior decisions. Again, it pays to tap the brakes here to move faster later.
4. Don't march until the mission and parameters are clear
The lack of clarity on strategy is debilitating to any organization striving to move fast. The lack of role and parameters for executing strategy is paralyzing. Military leaders use a tool known as "Commander's Intent" to clarify and communicate the desired outcomes and individual parameters for a mission. Organizational leaders can apply this same concept to ensure clarity for strategy, targeted outcomes and expectations for involvement across all groups.
Invest time in developing a clear statement that summarizes the strategy, desired outcomes and the parameters groups have for achieving success. Bring this to life through discussion and reinforce it through goals, key performance indicators and in operations reviews.
There’s something transformational about having everyone on the same page for the marketplace battle. While achieving clarity across and up and down the organization takes time, it’s priceless in helping everyone move faster toward success.
The bottom line
It turns out, Mom was right yet again: "Haste makes waste."
The need for speed in our organizations is undeniable. However, beware of the "cult of speed" that tempts us to short-circuit the activities that merit processing time. Much like the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, too much flutter in an organizational system will have disastrous results. Learn to lead by tapping the brakes and slowing down at the right times. You'll move much faster this way.
Art Petty is an executive and emerging leader coach and a popular leadership and management author, speaker and workshop presenter. His experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership comes through in his books, articles, and live and online programs. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.