You’ll rarely meet a CEO or top executive suggesting, “What we need to do is slow down.” This counter-intuitive guidance in a world seemingly spinning faster-and-faster flies in the face of conventional thinking and practice, yet in matters of strategy, slowing down to move faster, is often the recipe for success. Of course, it takes leadership courage to hit the pause button.

More Listening (and Observing) and Less Acting on Reflex

We’ve conditioned our teams and organizations to sense and respond to perturbations in the environment with amazing speed. While the agility of many of today’s organizations is impressive and needed for survival, too often, our speed optimized routines and our knee-jerk reactions to external and internal pressures force us to miss the larger picture and more significant opportunities and risks.

A firm struggling to uncover growth in a slowly declining industry had developed fast-twitch reflexes for any competitor moves. One firm would launch product or marketing initiatives, and the other would respond in kind, perhaps with a small twist. The resultant trench warfare claimed profit margins as casualties, with no apparent winner emerging from the conflagration.

Convinced the current way of competing was one of mutually assured destruction, one senior manager hit the pause button on the never-ending cycle of me-too customer interviewing and resultant product road-mapping, and proposed something radical. “We’re going to stop asking our customers what they need and instead, go out and observe their operations and look see what we can learn.

What they learned changed the direction and fate of the business.

While customers would always describe the need for incremental tweaks and improvements if you asked them, the firm’s products were the least of their customer’s concerns. In reality, the firm’s products were small pieces of a more significant, complicated and often convoluted process flow of data and decision points. The real issue for clients involved simplifying the process flow, gaining control over the quality and speed of access to the data and eliminating costly and slow manual processing steps.

Ultimately this manager’s firm focused on taking this burden away from their customers through a combined services and software offering. The customers were beyond happy, and the manager’s firm carved impressive growth out of declining market-space, while competitors looked on helplessly for a time.

Too often our drive for speed blinds us to the real opportunities and issues in-front of us. The “pause” meant the firm failed to update product roadmaps for a quarterly review, which created significant stress for the manager in the short-term. Her courage to hit the pause button and stand-up to those pushing the corporate flywheel faster and faster proved to be a difference-maker.

Take the Time to Embed the Work of Strategy:

For many organizations, the work of strategy is relegated to one or even a few events on the calendar where people show up and are challenged to think about the big picture. In the drive to complete the “task” of strategy, these firms employ common templates (e.g., S.W.O.T.); generate a list of flip-charts and ultimately settle on some semblance of more-of-the-same as their so-called strategy. While I grant you that at least people are talking about the business, there’s very little work of rethinking the environment and future that goes into or comes out of most of these endeavors. They are effectively a rush to check-a-box.

Instead of speeding through this critical thinking in a desire to cross it off the organizational to-do list, try slowing down, opening it up to broader involvement, and then inserting the work of strategy into the regular “operating routine” of the business. Here’s how one management team found a way to bring it to life.

How Slowing Down Helped a Firm Move Faster with Strategy

After yet-again another summer offsite filled with flip-charts and opinions and ideas, and a fair amount of posturing, the CEO concluded this work was proving counterproductive. “We came out of these events with some nice slides that sounded good, but we truly were no closer to understanding what we needed to do to survive or thrive in an uncertain future. It was a giant exercise in incremental thinking.

Frustrated with what he viewed as trivial outcomes, he brought his management team back together to wrestle with the issue. They didn’t disagree, and in his words, “The group for the first-time started talking about the questions we needed to answer about our business and its future. We all agreed this was a journey, not an event and that we needed help from the broader organization.

Ultimately, the management team called upon some cross-functional groups to pursue gaining insights and ideas for critical strategic questions. And instead of rushing to create slides and deliverables, the groups worked with customers, partners, and even subject matter experts in far-away industries and technologies striving to gather insights and ideas.

The next year was one of discovery for the organization. The critical thinking work became embedded into the culture and effectively part of everyone’s job. The firm drew upon agile practices to explore many of the opportunities, and they worked together regularly to refine strategic hypotheses. The regular operating cycle (monthly and quarterly business reviews) included significant portions of time for strategy updates and decision-making.

Key outputs of this seeming slow-down included identifying new areas of investment, killing off sacred but struggling initiatives, and creating a company-wide commitment to a direction. Importantly, it also opened up the work of strategy and empowerment for execution to the broader organization. Yes, the team had a weak report-back to their board after that last, fateful summer offsite. However, this sacrifice in speed brought them a prosperous future.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you’re like everyone else, you are moving fast and striving to optimize a routine. When it comes to many issues, including talent, strategy, and serving our customers, sometimes, the winning approach is to take your foot off the accelerator and stop, look, and listen. It’s easy for all of us to become drunk on the adrenaline rush from the need to move faster. However, for many key issues, speed kills.

Art's Signature