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Desperate times and double measures

You usually have more time than you think, whether it's in taking action or saying something. Measure twice so you cut once -- and well.

5 min read


Desperate times and double measures

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“Be quick but don’t hurry” is a principle made famous by legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

He was the bespectacled Midwesterner who stunned new recruits during their first practice by instructing them how to properly put on socks (to minimize the likelihood they would get blisters). He also led his teams to 10 national championships.

I thought of Coach Wooden when I took a call from a breathless prospect the other day. She spoke quickly to convey the urgency of her needs and how her company was scrambling to get new marketing materials produced. Mine was the third firm she had reached out to, and she had already given the other two assignments to come up with ideas. By the time our frenetic, 20-minute conversation ended, my pulse-tracking sports watch buzzed to suggest I take a moment to relax. It’s funny how human emotions can be contagious like that.

While my heart rate couldn’t help but be affected by the call, I’ve learned enough about business in general, and branding in particular, to know that rushing rarely results in good outcomes.

Other companies are happy to jump right into execution, hoping their strategic guesswork is correct, but we insist on strategy first: socks before shoes. You might say another old adage, “measure twice, cut once,” fairly well describes our philosophy.

I did my best to convey our approach during the call without offending her or losing the opportunity to be of service. I was afraid she would show reflexive resistance to the idea of measuring twice because, on the surface, it may come across as taking more time than immediately reaching for the saw. But that’s a common misnomer.

If you measure just once (or not at all) and realize you didn’t properly size up the assignment, you may indeed be able to take a second cut and be OK (never mind that doing so will take more time, require additional energy and dull your blade). It is just as likely, however, that you’ll cut too deep.

Whether that results in ruined inventory, wasted money, burned-out staff, strained relationships or creating a costly misperception in the marketplace, it may be something from which you can’t recover.

Even in the most urgent situations, it almost always makes more sense to take a breath, get organized, be certain about your strategy and then move apace. Be quick, but don’t hurry. Measure twice, cut once.

(That doesn’t mean that “measuring thrice” would be even better. For every company that’s in a hurry there are others which struggle with procrastination, hesitation, overthinking, and the inability to make a decision. They often try to justify it as prudence, failing to recognize that windows of opportunity close as well as open. “Ready, fire, aim” is no way to go about business, but neither is “ready, aim, aim, aim.” Measuring twice is sufficient.)

In that spirit, I wrapped up the call with my harried prospect by asking if she would give me a few days to prepare a specific recommendation outlining how we would approach the assignment, as well as an hour in which to present it. Both requests felt like big asks, given her hurry, but she granted them.

A few days later, we walked through what “measure twice, cut once” looks like in her scenario, which was less about postponing the end date as much as changing the order in which we would do things to get there. This call was much more relaxed, not to mention cordial, and she asked for a formal proposal.

Reflecting upon the experience, I’m reminded that “measure twice, cut once” is sage wisdom not only for actions we take but also conversations in which we engage. It’s always tempting to blurt out what immediately comes to mind when we’re full of nervous energy, ignoring the need to measure our words. But had I delivered a cutting retort or condescending lecture on that first call, I almost certainly would have lost the opportunity to help both her company and mine.

It’s a good reminder that what we say is as risky as what we “saw.” The next time you feel a sense of urgency — whether to respond to someone or react to something — take a deep breath and a double measure. You may not get a second whack.


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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