To lead effectively, one must simultaneously maintain visibility of both the details and the Big Picture. Leaders must constantly find ways to optimize their own efforts, as well as those of their teams. This is easier said than done, and unfortunately, many leaders get caught in cycles of working harder…not necessarily smarter.
The idea of going slow…to go fast has been around for ages. I was first introduced to the concept by Sue Bethanis, founder and CEO of Mariposa Leadership. I worked with Sue for many years after graduate school and learned an immense amount from her and the team of veteran executive coaches there. I’ve used this concept ever since, as it often resonates with clients due to its simplicity, and because it serves as a reminder of the importance to slow down, zoom-out, and constantly reassess your surroundings.
That said, business leaders also seem to struggle when it comes to implementing it behaviorally into their day-to-day business affairs. The core struggle comes from the dichotomy between “Knowing” and “Doing.”
Intellectually knowing something is one thing. Actually doing something about it is a completely different beast. Knowing requires wrapping your head around something, which most of us can do relatively easily. Doing requires a shift in behavior to act in new and unique ways. Often it takes leaders some time to build new habits around slowing down, and coaching tends to expedite the process and learning curve. This notion of going slow to go fast is critically important for leaders (and businesses) to understand and leverage though.
Abe Lincoln’s famous quote, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” is a perfect example of this. I love this quote because it does an excellent job of capturing the essence of what I’m trying to convey. Few leaders and organizations fully understand nor appreciate the value and positive impact of this approach. In fact, many push back against going slow because it stands in stark contrast to the fast-paced, interrupt driven culture and lexicon that currently exists in much of Silicon Valley and startup life.
Let’s take a closer look at what we actually mean though. Often times in business the word “slow” is faux paux and frowned upon. Terms like failing fast, first to market, hockey stick growth, scalability, etc…get much more airplay. Rightfully so. Those terms are exciting and sexy and easy to rally around. Let’s be serious…who the hell gets up in the morning and is excited to go to work to go slow?
In the startup world, companies often get funded with clear marching orders to GROW. They then dutifully and rightfully invest that money in scalability efforts. Some go completely nuts. We’ve seen companies double and even triple headcount in a year! If growth were all that mattered then this would be considered a resounding success. But growth isn’t all that matters.
These are the aspects of business that suffer and ultimately fall apart at the seams when companies focus exclusively on moving fast. Many companies aim to gain market traction first, and then deal with everything else (culture, communication, HR, etc…) once they get there. That’s like attempting to summit Everest first, and then dealing with setting up base camps after the fact.
To be clear…we are huge advocates of moving fast. We love nothing more than helping companies and teams scale rapidly. We fully understand the value of defining new market segments as quickly as possible. We believe leaders should focus on efficiency and speed of execution whenever possible. That said, all too often leaders over-optimize for speed everywhere in the company, resulting in poor decision making, shitty cultures, fragmented communication, ineffective feedback loops, technical debt, uninformed and disengaged employees, and ultimately inferior results.
This is the point when Better Faster Further gets called in to help. Companies feel pain. Employees are unhappy. Attrition occurs. Communication efforts are failing. Burnout and overwhelm exist. Things are messy. Leaders try to right the ship on their own utilizing the skills and tools at their disposal, but things don’t seem to be improving. In fact, they’re often just getting worse and more complex.
The Harvard Business Review article “Need Speed? Slow Down,” by Jocelyn R. Davis and Tom Atkinson found:
“In our study of 343 businesses (conducted with the Economist Intelligence Unit), the companies that embraced initiatives and chose to go, go, go to try to gain an edge ended up with lower sales and operating profits than those that paused at key moments to make sure they were on the right track. What’s more, the firms that “slowed down to speed up” improved their top and bottom lines, averaging 40% higher sales and 52% higher operating profits over a three-year period.”
We named our business Better Faster Further because it captures the essence of what’s required in today’s business landscape. We help organizations become better. We help them move faster. And we help them go further by becoming more durable. Put another way, we do what’s required to help companies scale, make meaningful impact, achieve their desired results, and make them places that people want to be part of. To do this effectively, it takes more than just focusing on going fast.
We have to focus on Process and People.
On systems and culture.
On communication and feedback.
On strategy and leadership.
We have to look at the organization in a holistic manner, as a system, in order to account for the overall longevity and durability of the business. This takes time. There is no magic bullet or secret formula. It requires that leaders be willing to put in the time to sharpen the axe (going slow) in honor of moving quickly when it’s needed and matters most (going fast). One simply has to watch the news to see what happens when companies fail to invest the appropriate time on these core components of sustainability.
Going slow to go fast is both a way of thinking (mindset) and a way of being (behavior). In order for behaviors to shift, we have to first change the way we think about things. Going slow means investing in the things that matter long term and that take time to develop, so that we can move quickly and become successful over the long haul.
We want every organization to be successful and to maximize their full potential. In a perfect world, we’d get put out of a job because businesses around the world were running so smoothly. However, that’s not the current reality. For the foreseeable future we have some job security, and until that day comes, we’ll keep working diligently to help organizations of all sizes to become better than they currently are.
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Better Faster Further is a strategic consulting and executive coaching firm that helps leaders, teams, and organizations maximize peak performance. We empower people and businesses to become the best they can be. You can learn more about us at Better Faster Further, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.