Note from Art: a version of this article appeared originally at SmartBrief on Leadership

The Need for Speed is Obvious, But Be Careful

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. And 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, the pursuit of speed in poorly designed systems exposes weaknesses and often precipitates project, strategy, and even 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 a recording of 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 recently revised in favor of a newer concept and term—aerodynamic flutter—introduced by self-induced rocking aided by poor construction 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 moving as intended in the wind when unexpected and often self-induced pressures are added to the equation, people, processes, and strategies move out of phase with original intentions.

The pursuit of speed without consideration for the system’s ability and its participants to 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.

Four 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 stakeholders’ outcomes. 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, this 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.

2. Rein In Runaway Group Discussions

Think about your typical status meeting update session that devolves into a debating session when 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—a classic example of The Abilene Paradox in action. It would help if you had a technique for corralling these runaway trains and focusing people on the right issues together.

I long ago adopted my parallel thinking/facilitation variation, as suggested by Edward de Bono in Six Thinking Hats. I use the logic of parallel thinking, but not the hats. 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.

Identify and capture all the key factors surrounding the decision process and conclusion. From participants to problem statements to assumptions, options, and the final decision and expected outcomes, this information is a treasure trove for assessing decision-making effectiveness. Importantly, always establish a future time to consider expectations versus results and look for ideas to improve moving forward.

4. Don’t March Until the Mission 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. Both are cured with the creative use of a “Commander’s Intent” approach drawn from the military.

Most strategy failures are more about execution than ideas. Dig deep around the execution issues, and invariably, you will find confusion over the mission and assignments. Take the time to craft a clear description of the desired end-state of the mission and offer clarity for key tasks and parameters.

There are few investments in time worth more than pausing to ensure everyone understands the mission and their role in creating success.

The Bottom Line for Now:

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's Signature