What Sprinters Teach Us About Organizational Speed

Faster, cheaper, better. The three things every company / product is always striving for. Faster is the one that every startup touts; “we execute at light speed” is a phrase I’ve heard more than once. Yet, what really makes startups fast. And, what is the relative measure? Is it simply a subjective feeling? Are there benchmarks for making these claims?

I’m fascinated how startups revere speed, yet often have no plan or cogent strategy by which they manufacture that speed — often relying simply on being small and nimble. However, there is an art and science to speed that I intend to explore. And, to kick things off, I’d like to look at sprinters as they provide a great analogy and framework from which to view startup speed.

When you look at sprinters (like Usain Bolt), what makes them so fast is their muscle force to weight ratio; the acceleration that they can generate in the 0.1 seconds that their foot is in actual contact with the ground. This acceleration is is what separates the winners from the losers.

It’s physics pure and simple —

Acceleration = Force / Mass

Let’s break down the components:

Acceleration: Acceleration is what defines the winner of every race. Sprinters face forces that are acting to slow them down: gravity, friction, and wind resistance. If a sprinter is not accelerating with every step, they are slowing down. Startups need to adopt the same mindset — if they aren’t actively trying to accelerate, they’re slowing down. As noted above, there is no objective measure to know how fast your startup is moving which means you’re essentially in a time trial. All you can do is push yourself to move faster.

Force: Force is composed of both magnitude and direction. For sprinters, force manifests itself in each foot strike pushing forward while wind resistance creates drag on their speed. Direction is equally important as sprinters focus their force on moving straight ahead as opposed to hurdlers who use some amount of energy to jump — its one reason why sprinters are faster than hurdlers. Organizations need to similarly consider both factors. Magnitude (time, money, people, resources) and direction (strategy, coordination/communication) of activities ultimately create forward movement and value creation.

Mass: More mass creates more resistance to change in general as Lex Sisney writes. In the case of a sprinter, more mass creates more friction with the ground and wind resistance. A startup’s mass can generally be defined by the number of people of the organization, just like a sprinter’s physical weight. Its why so many startups just claim to be fast — because of their size.

“A race ? He said race .— I Hope I win

In addition to the physics of a sprinter, it is also helpful to look at the context in which they’re competing. It’s a simple goal: who crosses the finish line first. Everyone understands it. In business, goals are rarely so simple. However, it should serve as an aspiration to all leaders to provide such concrete goals to their organization. This enables internal teams, contractors, and agencies to stay aligned on the central goal. Make the goal concrete, clear, and simple — and you’ll inspire, empower, and enable the team to run as fast as possible in a straight line to that goal.

Let me know what you thought of this article in the comments below. I intend to dive deeply into the organizational speed of startups across hiring, decision making, product development, and sales & marketing. If there are specific questions or aspects you’d like me to write about, please share.