The need for speed
One Friday years ago, I called a friend who was a marketing manager at a large company to see if he wanted to have a beer after work. I asked him about his week, and he reported that he’d spent it designing a one-page brochure (if you’re under 25, that’s a piece of paper). An entire week! And that was before it went to the graphic designers. I was flabbergasted. I’m all for quality and proofreading, but one page (even fewer with pictures) in a week?
Speed is often a significant advantage. Faster to market, less executive time, higher ROI. However, we often get caught up in our perceptions about how long something should take. Another friend who’s the CEO of a large organization wanted some software written to solve a problem. His internal team of 300 told him it would take a year. He got it done in a week by posting a requirements document on the web and taking bids. Clearly, too many projects in the system can also cause this problem. In this case, however, it was more likely about a free-market solution versus a centrally controlled environment.
I’ve seen three major impediments to speed in organizational performance.
First, we often confuse process with objectives. They’re significantly different. For instance, I sometimes get calls from people who want me to facilitate an “off-site strategic planning meeting.” When I ask why, I often find that the real objective is: a) to fill time, b) to continue with the tradition, c) to entertain the troops or d) unknown.
Not one of those is a good reason. When I pursued a line of questioning recently with an executive who initially wanted a “strategic planning session,” the need I uncovered had to do with a companywide lack of accountability, which required a different solution. If you first clearly identify the objective by asking hard questions, you can then determine how to address the issue most effectively. Ask “what” first, then “how.”
Second, you can often achieve the objective (notice I didn’t say “the most elegant solution”) much more quickly than your initial assumption. It’s helpful to ask, “What if we had to do this in 10 percent of the time we allocated?” Once you survive the initial incredulous looks, you just might come up with some very unique answers and save a lot of time.
Last, it’s about success, not perfection. Oftentimes, squeezing out the last 10% of a project can take an inordinate amount of resources and time with little or no increase in quality. Clearly define the objective and meet it. When someone asks you to repaint the Sistine Chapel and improve the quality … then you can take your time!