Speed: 10 ways to create a faster company

Speed: 10 ways to create a faster company Over the last four weeks, I’ve had 10 conversations with CEOs in the US and Europe who had all seen the Founder’s Mentality® video and asked for more detail about how to speed up their organizations. We’ve argued that speed is the main benefit of the Founder’s Mentality, as well as the first thing companies lose as they drift into an incumbent mindset. As I set out to draft 10 steps companies could follow to increase their speed, I kept hearing Jerry Lee Lewis’s piano pounding in my brain. Here’s why.

In February 1957, late into a recording session with legendary Sun Records producer Jack Clement, Jerry Lee Lewis recorded his classic hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in one take. Including the actual time it took to record (less than three minutes) and a minute or so of discussion before and after, I’m guessing Lewis and Clement spent about five minutes creating one of the top rock-and-roll records of all time. That’s speed.

Of course, getting to that moment of near perfection took a lot longer than five minutes—it took lifetimes. Without going through the whole history of rock and roll (you can read about the early days of Sun, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis here), this recording demanded:

  • Why?/what? Sun founder Sam Phillips was determined to bring the sounds of the South (black and white) to pop music and had been working for years to accomplish this unique insurgent mission.
  • Who? Fundamental to this mission was Phillips’s ruthless focus on musicians as the “kings” of the music business—his was a musician-oriented company that had created an extraordinary track record of churning out stars that bridged country, R&B and pop. Just three months before, in December 1956, Sun Studio had hosted the “Million Dollar Quartet”—an “impromptu” jam session involving Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. These things don’t just happen; musicians don’t just show up to jam unless they feel comfortable that the business is oriented around them and their art.
  • How? You don’t get a great recording in one take without a great studio operating perfectly. Phillips had developed a Great Repeatable Model in the “Sun Sound,” which became legendary. Sun’s “slap-back echo” was copied but never perfected by other studios—when RCA “bought” Elvis from Phillips they never could recreate the Sun Sound, no matter how hard they tried.

In other words, to get to that magical five minutes in Memphis depended on an organization that had a clear, focused mission; a deep understanding of its kings (the musicians); and a culture/repeatable model that could handle the core job (recording music) with perfection. Speed isn’t about the “one take” recording session—the five-minute classic. It’s about all the work your organization puts in to create the preconditions for speed. Moving faster than the competition demands a maniacal focus on your insurgent mission—a mission that has been translated into a set of frontline routines and behaviors, refined by customer feedback loops, and reinforced by a culture that embraces conflict and fast conflict resolution.

As we’ve discussed in these blog posts, successful insurgent companies tend to come by these preconditions naturally in their early years. But with growth and scale comes complacency, and the preconditions begin to fade away. What follows is a list of 10 actions companies can take to reestablish this essential platform for speed.

  1. Rediscover the insurgency. To act with speed, your people must be able to answer the “why?” question; they need to embrace the insurgent mission that justifies the company’s existence. The insurgency must be real and authentic. It should describe your company at its greatest. The best companies define
    their “strategy on a hand” (see Figure 3 in this brief). Employees can describe the company’s mission simply, using their thumb and fingers. The thumb is a statement of the insurgency—how you deliver something of value to your target customer. The fingers spell out the three or four (you’re biologically forced to focus) things you must do brilliantly to keep customer promises. These things, in turn, comprise your repeatable model.
  2. Focus maniacally on what really matters for customers. In theory, your strategy on a hand brings focus—everyone in the company can articulate the insurgency and the repeatable model that delivers it. In practice, however, unless you embrace your spikiness, the natural inertia of complex organizations will lead to death by a thousand averages as bureaucrats fight for resources. Everyone will want you to be good enough at everything, which means you won’t be truly exceptional at anything. The whole point of a strategy on a hand is that shouts at you—you have to focus on no more than four things. These are the things your customers truly want, and you will only delight them if you are exceptional at each. This means you will never have a balanced score card—embrace imbalance instead. And for each area where you spike, build the necessary customer feedback loops to improve.
  3. Remain a future maker and reward risk takers. Building a foundation for speed also means you can’t allow the strategy to become static. You must see yourself as a future maker (the first to respond to turbulence, not the last) and build fast adaptation into your core business model. Fast adaptation begins with how you reward or penalize risk taking and experimentation. Companies that act with speed see themselves as constant adapters—they experiment and reward the experimenters. They succeed a little bit, they fail, they build on success and they learn from failures. Future takers, by contrast, focus resources on preserving what they have. They view those who take risks as jeopardizing the established order and punish them accordingly. Of course, they never actually say that, but everyone knows it. To rediscover your insurgency is to return to the world of insurgents—fast-moving fellow travelers riding the winds of turbulence.
  4. Define your lines in the sand and quickly support those who cross them. One of the great mysteries of business is that the more sophisticated we get with our information systems, the less clear we are on what to do with the information generated. Defining lines in the sand means determining which metrics or data points really matter (based on your company’s unique spikiness) and using them to mobilize or demobilize resources quickly to keep your critical businesses on track. For the life of me, I’ve yet to be shown why volume growth-by-product-by-channel isn’t one of these metrics. Seems the lifeblood of a company. When a unit misses its target in a critical channel, you can rapidly mobilize the right resources to help the “violating team” get back over the line. Everyone knows this and sees how resources will be mobilized and demobilized against a few lines in the sand. Stories will be told, legends created and it will become clear that these metrics really matter.
  5. Focus on your kings to lead the insurgency. For Sam Phillips, the kings were musicians. For a retailer, they are very often the store managers. For mobile handset companies, they might be the product development team for each handset. Each company is different, but we define the kings as the folks who are actually accountable for delivering the customer promise. The rest of you are the court—your job is to serve the kings. By elevating the kings in the organization and reconnecting with them on a regular basis, senior leadership will amplify the voice of the customer and the front line, which will sharpen decision making and enhance speed. It will also force you to reconsider the wisdom of rushing quickly to “spans and layers,” a tool too often used by incumbents to benchmark themselves to the average and resist real transformational change. With our DM 100 members, we are introducing simpler tools—the CEO should never be more than one layer from a P&L holder and two layers from the kings. Boy, does this generate really provocative debates about speed and simplicity.
  6. Refocus leadership behaviors around two things: energy and heroic doers. Not everyone is a king, but everyone in the company can contribute to speed through their own behaviors. Leaders can enhance speed in two broad areas. The first is energy: The leadership of most companies is exhausted, and tired leaders make things complex. This leads to a complexity doom loop. The more complex things become, the more it wears everybody out. The more tired people become, the more they rely on increasingly complex systems to solve problems. We all know how much energy it takes to make things simple. But every leader should make it a big part of his or her job to give energy to the company by helping others simplify. The second broad area leaders should concentrate on is making heroes out of “doers,” the folks who execute, the folks who SELL. It is a sad fact of modern business that we’ve created hierarchies—the doers are at the bottom and the “thinkers” are at the top. We devalue execution. In fact, many companies have their new management trainees “do the front line” for a bit to understand it and then escape to their thinking jobs. This sends a signal to everyone that the folks who get stuff done are less valued then the thinkers. If you want to act with speed, make the doers the heroes of the company again. No, really.
  7. Embrace conflict and remember that everything signals cadence. Good organization design creates conflict because your customers benefit from you making trade-offs on their behalf between conflicting goals. You want one part of the company delivering to customers the benefits of difference while another part strives for the benefits of sameness. Your Indonesian team, for instance, might shout out to make the soup spicier for local tastes. But your head of supply chain should fight to rationalize the number of mustard seeds used in soup, regardless of how spicy it is. Conflict is important to your customers because resolving hundreds of issues like these results in more value for them. But to achieve speed you must resolve conflict quickly. This means you must embrace conflict rather than bury it, as many incumbent cultures do. And you should embrace the notion of the Monday meeting—a meeting of your senior leadership where you agree once a week to unblock any organizational obstacle that is keeping people from doing their jobs well. What happens? You signal to everyone that the cadence of the company is now four days. You can’t blame the bureaucracy for more than four days because we’ve promised to unblock things once a week. Everything a senior leadership team does communicates cadence, and the whole point of Monday meetings, lines in the sand, etc., is to signal that you’d like that cadence to increase.
  8. Recognize the dual role of the leader. Leadership now demands two hats. A great leader must manage his or her team like a little insurgent—giving them a sense of mission and releasing them to change the world. But great leaders also make sure that the little team benefits from being part of the corporate ecosystem. The leader must deliver the best of the whole company to support the team while shielding team members from complexity. But speed is not only about running your little team. Speed demands you make the whole company work to support your piece of the pie. Acting with speed is a team sport.
  9. Solve the specific 10 times before raising a bigger problem and remember the opposite of simple is complex. Our work on the Founder’s Mentality has really forced us to explore deeply the subtle differences between insurgents and incumbents. Consider the differences in problem solving. Insurgents take a problem and solve the specific problem. If it is too big, they break it down and solve a smaller problem. The bias is to act with speed. Incumbents take a specific problem and find some general principles that need resolving. They make each problem bigger, too big to act upon. So, to increase speed, act like an insurgent—force yourself and your team to solve the specific 10 times before debating bigger patterns. If you have a pricing problem in Utah, for instance, fix the price on product X in Utah. Don’t point out that this raises a general problem of the difference in pricing between the West and East, and how this raises a governance question around the role of sales vs. product development, which leads to a general leadership question of how we recruit and retain our people. Leave that for your retirement novel. Another subtle difference is that for an insurgent, the opposite of simple is complex. There is a cost to adding steps to a process or more analysis to a question. For incumbents, the opposite of simple is advanced—there is a benefit to adding steps in a process or analysis to a question. If you want to act with speed, act like an insurgent—assign a cost to complexity. A simple question when the incumbents start asking for more processes and analysis: Is the customer willing to pay us to do this? In most cases, the answer is no.
  10. Stop something. Insurgents act quickly because their management teams have a very low tolerance for “stuff.” They like to stay lean and focused. They hate bureaucracy. They like to simplify. If you want to increase speed, stop accumulating stuff. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you believe in the notion of spikiness—pursuing excellence in only the few things that matter most to your customers—then about 50% of your current capability-building activities are a waste of time. They are focused on wonderful phrases like “internal customers,” “functional excellence” or “The [insert your company here] Way of Marketing.” These are all big programs to get better at all things. But they are not about being exceptional at the few things that matter. Speed requires stopping a lot of things. Speed is painful. But part of the reason that Jerry Lee cut his record in five minutes is that there weren’t a lot of average musicians waiting around Sun Records to record. Sam Phillips gave the great musicians the time and space to create greatness and sent the rest home.

Each of these steps covers a lot of territory, and the links can provide more information. But taken together, the list delivers a simple message: Getting faster is about creating the preconditions to execute brilliantly with pace. Anyone can record a song in one take—I know, I’m a happily failing record producer in my spare time. But to record a brilliant song in one take requires extraordinary clarity on the “Why?/what?, who? and how?” There needs to be a “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

This entry was posted in The Journey North by James Allen. Bookmark the permalink.

About James Allen

James Allen is a senior partner in Bain & Company's London office and recognized as a leading expert in developing global corporate and business unit strategy. He is co-head of Bain’s Global Strategy practice and a member of Bain & Company's European Consumer Products practice. He is co-author, with Chris Zook, of Repeatability (HBR Press, March 2012) and Profit from the Core (HBR Press, 2001 and 2010).

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