In Silicon Valley we’re surrounded by this intense urge to move fast. Speed is everything. Faster processors, faster machines, faster algorithms, faster load times, faster installs. Fast, fast, fast.
The pace is frenetic, the environment intense and speed can often mean the difference between success and failure or between being first to market or second.
But the funny thing is: Being fast or being first doesn’t always mean winning. It doesn’t always mean you succeed and it’s not always smart.
In fact, speed can kill. Not just the founder in his car cruising at 140 mph, but the founder’s startup. In our quest to be first and to move fast, we exhaust ourselves, those around us, cut corners, and make mistakes.
In business we have a term for this: 1st Movers versus Fast Followers.
Just look at the smartwatch market. Apple’s share of the smartwatch market is estimated to be around 21% according to IDC. Apple was actually way behind and launched after Android Wear was already out. But the company that was first to market and was among the fastest ever to go from funding to getting a product out to market? That was Pebble.
Where is Pebble today? Although the company was the darling of the crowdfunding world when it raised $20.3M on Kickstarter back in 2015, it sold for only $23M to Fitbit in 2016 when it found itself unable to continue operating due to lack of cash and a series of strategic blunders (one of which was massively underinvesting in marketing).
Similarly, when I was at Google and we decided to launch the Nexus 7, Android’s first foray into the tablet market, the entire Android team’s focus was on speed and time to market. Andy Rubin, Android’s founder and mercurial leader, was so focused on getting a device to market, that we went from concept to launch in less than 6 months — something that was unheard of in the hardware business. Yet, while we first to market with an amazingly competitive product, where are the Nexus tablets today?
We launched so fast we totally underestimated demand. We launched so fast we didn’t have customer support set up to meet the volume of complaints we would get from people unable to get the devices they paid for. We even had customers show up IN PERSON on the mountain view campus because they were so upset at how late we were in sending them devices.
A big part of the problem: Speed. Way too much speed.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against speed and I get why speed is one of the big factors that can help startups win. But I’ve seen and made plenty of mistakes where a big part of the culprit was speed.
Why does going too fast hurt us so badly?
When we go too fast we don’t tell people everything they need to know. When people don’t have enough context, they may not understand the reason for the urgency behind why we’re doing what we’re doing. When they don’t have enough information, they also might not know who is doing what, when it’s due or what their role is. Their expectation of the situation might be different than ours (see below).
Lack of ownership
When we don’t spend enough time communicating and enrolling others, we don’t enroll them as part of the solution. We tell them to do something but don’t really take the time to understand their desires, motivations or needs. When people aren’t enrolled, they’re not as committed to the individual success of the project. Their ideas aren’t heard or taken into account. They don’t feel ownership in the project and when things get tough, they’re more likely to feel like it wasn’t “theirs” to begin with.
When people don’t feel like they have ownership or aren’t vested in the outcome they’re less motivated. They haven’t really bought in. We’re simply heaping more work on them or asking them to work weekends or nights. Since they feel imposed on, they’re less motivated. Importantly, when their motivation suffers, it soon affects those around them who either feel like they’re not pulling their weight or who lose motivation themselves.
When people aren’t motivated, they don’t offer the best solutions to problems. They don’t stretch themselves or go the extra mile. They fail to think outside of the box and come up with innovative solutions that could save time, money and effort. Poor solutions result in half measures or patches which have to be repaired later. This can further compound the problem.
When I was at GetJar in 2010, we had to rebuild a large part of the platform from scratch. We had grown too fast and had made a number of obvious mistakes when it came to scalability. We lost at least a full 12 months rebuilding our systems, when we should have been focusing on other changes that were happening the market.
That mistake, among others, eventually doomed the company (along with the $40M we had raised in VC funding).
Enter the blame game!
When mistakes abound and we start missing deadlines, the stress and the frustration sets in and the blame game begins. People start looking for others to blame and you risk having a toxic environment set in.
As I discussed in my post on Jumping Ship: 7 Signs it’s Time to Quit, once you have a toxic environment, things slow down even further and people start asking themselves why they are sticking around.
People might not leave your organization or company immediately, but they might check out mentally. These people were never properly told why you needed to move so fast, they never agreed to those your crazy deadlines and they see the mistakes happen that they said would happen. So when the mistakes happen they throw up their hands in despair. When this happens often enough they start to look for the exits.
Leadership’s credibility tanks
Every time leadership messes up, particularly when things could have been avoided by having more people buy in, credibility is eroded. The further it’s eroded, the more trust is put in jeopardy. When trust is gone it becomes nearly impossible to rally people to your cause. It’s like the “boy who cried wolf”. People just lose faith. Game over.
How to move fast and not kill your company
Identify all key stakeholders
The first step, after you’ve identified a problem or opportunity, really has to be figuring who on your team needs to be involved and why. It might be a hassle to involve certain people and their will always be a temptation to involve less people and move faster, but involving the right people will ensure not only the the problem is properly identified, but will also result in the widest range of solutions coming to light.
Enroll people into your project
A client of mine complained that a certain team never pulled their weight and always seemed to hold back when taking part in a project. When I asked her when the last time was that she had sat down with the team lead on that team to understand their limitations and concerns and to understand what resource constraints they might have, the answer was “really never.”
She subsequently invited this person for coffee, asked them how things were going and where she might help. To her surprise, the team lead confessed that he was super strapped for resources and although he was excited about the new projects she was working on, he was frustrated that he didn’t have the resources to properly support her.
Once she realized his dilemma, she agreed to try and help him secure additional resources and his demeanour changed visibly. They now shared a common goal so that they could both take on more projects to help the company succeed.
Communicate often using the right channels
Once you’ve identified the right stakeholders, it’s key to make sure they’re all getting the same information, at the same time and using the right channels. For some people an email or Slack message might be enough, while for others, particularly old timers, you may need to do lunch or grab a coffee.
Make sure, however, that when you need someone to agree to do something, that they specifically agree to your request either in writing or in person. Don’t expect that simply because you sent them 5 emails, that they agreed (see below). A simple rule of thumb is: Over communicate using multiple channels.
Understand people’s motivations
People are motivated by a whole number of factors: Fear, ambition, greed, their spouse, a promotion, money etc. The more you can understand a person’s motivations, the easier it is to help them help you.
The trick here is that you may have to go beyond your comfort zone to discover their motivations. In another situation, a different client of mine was struggling with the head of another team. He thought this person simply didn’t want to help him. As we talked things through, he realized he had never spent any real quality time getting to know this other team lead and that he had actually rebuffed this person on one occasion where they had invited him to have a “hot desk” near their team.
Eventually, he invited this other person for drinks after work on a Friday, was able to get to know him better and began to understand his motivations. The situation started changing overnight.
Focus on agreements, not expectations
As a marketing coach, one of the complaints I get most often from clients is “I expected him to do this by Friday and then he didn’t deliver. Unbelievable.” My subsequent question is always: “OK, but did that person verbally or otherwise agree to get that task done by Friday?” One of the biggest problems in business, particularly when you fail to enroll others or communicate properly, is that people don’t specifically agree on things.
Next time you’re in a meeting, make sure you specifically agree to things with people who you depend on. If they’re unable to agree, ask them for a counter offer and really try and understand their motivations (you may even have to get them out of the office to do this). Agreements, not expectations are the key to moving forward.
The most important thing I learned from my own coach was simply this: Sometimes, to speed up, you have to slow down. Although this applies in any company, nowhere is this more true then in startups where time, people and money are your most precious resources.
I hope this article was helpful and if you’re a senior marketing leader ever in need of advice or support managing these or other types of career-related issues feel free to book some time to talk to me here.
Don’t forget to tune into my Podcast so you can catch my latest marketing / CMO interviews on your phone while on the way to work and be sure to follow me on Facebook for live events and webinars on marketing, tech and marketing careers.