You Don’t Have to Move Fast and Break Things
You can also move slow and make things
The importance of speed in business is more prominent than ever. One of Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles is “Speed matters.” Google’s 10 Core Philosophies includes the simple statement “Fast is better than slow.” Mark Zuckerberg’s most famous business quote is “Move fast and break things.” It is pretty clear that businesses want and need to be fast — but how does one know what fast looks like? A marathon runner’s average speed is half that of a sprinter, but does that make them slow? The same also applies to business. Trying to push your team to sprint in a marathon industry can have significant negative effects.
So how can we assess how fast a company should be moving? One key element is the complexity and impact of the product or service the company develops. So when you look at what could go wrong, the larger the negative impact, the more likely you need to build your company culture like a Eliud Kipchoge (Berlin marathon winner) rather than a Usain Bolt. Consider Bechtel, the construction company, in comparison to Snapchat.
If Bechtel builds a building poorly people may die, whereas if Snapchat develops and update to a feature poorly people may use fewer filters and start using the app less (which, ironically, may actually be a good thing for people).
Bechtel can’t be expected to operate at the same pace as Snapchat because they need to be more measured, as the impact of an error is significantly greater.
There are many similar examples of this. 3G Capital — the famous private equity firm that has conquered the world with multibillion-dollar deals, including those for Burger King, Kraft Heinz, and Anheuser-Busch InBev — is known for its fast-paced, and, some would say, chaotic culture. This approach, however, fits well with the industries they have bought into: consumer goods, where the product lifecycle is very short. The same pace and culture wouldn’t work in a heavy manufacturing company, for example.
When things can become tricky is when companies do not realise the impact that their product, service, or industry has. Consider Facebook, for example. In 2010, when Mark Zuckerberg said “Privacy was no longer a social norm,” he obviously could not have foreseen that data from his platform would be used as a weapon of warfare so powerful that it could potentially sway an election in the most powerful country in the world.
The impact and power of the product and service Facebook provides now demands a more measured approach. Instead of move fast and break things, in many cases they now need to “move slow and make things.”
Already, Facebook has started to evolve, recently hiring Sir Nick Clegg, the former UK deputy prime minister, as its head of global policy and communications. This will inevitably slow down Facebook — but the race has changed.
On the flip side, it also can be challenging when a company correctly recognises the complexity and impact of its product or service and builds an appropriate culture consistent with the pace of the business. For example, speaking in my personal capacity (and I promise I’m not being biased here :)), Siemens has done a great job in building a culture appropriate for its business and industry.
According to LinkedIn, of all the top global companies, Siemens has the longest average tenure for employees at 8.6 years. This means Siemens employees stick around, which creates a more long-term mindset. This is great for a business that involves building products such as power plants, trains, and devices which will still be around in 20 years’ time. Because staff think long term, the temptation to take shortcuts and make rash decisions is mitigated. People consult widely, and the company moves precisely by aligning with all stakeholders before a decision is finally made.
The downside can be that this culture is replicated in every part of the business, even when it is not necessary to be as precise. Broad consultations may be critical for the engineering department when they are planning how to set up a power plant, but the finance team doesn’t need to be as meticulous and consultative when rolling out new KPIs for a performance management system that can be changed or removed with minimal long-term impact.
I have attended a number of startup events, especially in Berlin, and a number of times I have heard startups comment about Siemens being “too slow.” While I get where the idea comes from (and I would simultaneously agree and disagree), it really depends on the type of race one is running.
In some areas, Siemens has done a great job at running at the right pace — ultimately seeing competitors speeding along, only for those competitors to realise that the race was a marathon, not a sprint. In other areas Siemens can certainly speed up and will need to as markets converge with the advent of digitalization, which has suddenly seen companies such as Google compete and lead in a certain segment of the car industry with Waymo.
The same is true for all companies: understanding the right pace for the right race is critical at a corporate level, down to each individual business and department, in order to ensure that teams are neither moving too fast nor too slow. So how “fast” are you?