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To Go Fast, Your Company Needs To Slow Down

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Yes, you need to keep pace and get to market fast—but the relentless pursuit of speed and growth without considering the broader systems at play is a recipe for disaster. Here the most common mistakes CEOs make—and how not to make them.

In our work with leadership teams, we often find ourselves quoting Peter Senge’s famous law from The Fifth Discipline – ‘slower is faster.’ This principle emphasizes the importance of taking time to understand the complexities and interdependencies in an organization before taking action. This principle, however, smacks right into the ‘go fast’ mantra that senior leaders in many growing organizations espouse.

Most senior leaders we work with are high achievers and view everything they do as a rush to compete. They are in a constant race to gain market share or get their products to market first so they can learn and iterate, enhance the visibility of their brands, and gain economies of scale. While the competitive landscape does require quick action and these advantages are crucial, it is essential for leadership teams to remember the principle ‘slower is faster,’ given the significant risks of rushing without due consideration.

Going Too Fast is a Recipe for Dysfunction

According to Senge’s systems thinking theory, ‘when speed becomes excessive, the system will seek to compensate by slowing down, perhaps putting the organization’s survival at risk in the process.’ His point is a caution against the relentless pursuit of speed and growth without considering the broader systems at play. Below are examples of mistakes that some senior leaders make when they move too quickly, along with case studies from our clients to illustrate the consequences.

1. Collaboration is compromised when senior leaders assume that their extensive experience or technical expertise will automatically lead others to recognize the brilliance of their ideas. Convinced that explaining the ‘why’ is too time-consuming, they end up imposing their ideas on colleagues either directly or indirectly, leading to resistance.

Client example: To accelerate growth, the CEO of a $100M global IT solutions company relied on his instincts and years of experience to hire new marketing and sales chiefs from large well-established organizations, without seeking input from his current team. Within a few short months, it became clear that the new hires were introducing excessive bureaucracy, hindering the agile approach of the product development and sales teams.

2. Innovation is hindered when senior leaders move at such a pace that they perceive engagement with colleagues – to validate assumptions, gather different perspectives, and deliberate on key strategic issues – as a waste of time. This bypasses the genuine advantage of harnessing the team’s collective wisdom, increasing the likelihood of overlooking market shifts and producing strategies that lack depth and foresight.

Client example: In a rush to introduce a unique and disruptive new technology to market, the CEO of a $50M software firm disregarded the product development road map, instructing her engineering team to make significant product adjustments based on her latest interactions with customers, without reprioritizing the road map. These actions led to resource drain, burnout on the engineering team, and delays in implementation.

3. Efficiency suffers when senior leaders prioritize immediate problem-solving and overlook the expertise within their chain of command. Such behaviors leave managers and staff feeling bewildered and frustrated, ultimately slowing down processes and heightening dependence on the leader to solve challenging issues.

Client example: In his eagerness to promptly address client requirements, the president of a mid-sized commercial bank often circumvented the established hierarchy. He would directly issue instructions to employees several tiers below, neglecting to inform senior or mid-level managers. This approach led to ambiguity and dismay among both managers and employees, causing them to question which instructions to follow. As a result, the bank faced setbacks in operational efficiency and client responsiveness.

4. Alignment is jeopardized when senior leaders push forward with ideas or initiatives without consulting their colleagues for clarity and rationale. This can lead to their teams to inadvertently duplicate efforts, work at cross purposes, or be unaware of impending deadlines.

Client example: The CEO of a $35M software start-up was so confident in his ability to ‘manage’ the board that his team, despite team member objections, failed to adequately structure and prepare for board meetings. Routine last-minute significant modifications, misalignment among leaders on core messages, and ensuing board member confusion characterized these sessions. Consequently, the immediate lead-up to each board meeting was chaotic, involving multiple draft revisions and intensive work sessions. This lack of organization often drew intensified post-meeting scrutiny from concerned board members.

From our observations, the pursuit of speed usually stems from a senior leader’s genuine intention to act in the organization’s best interest – whether it’s accelerating progress with new talent, swiftly adapting products to market shifts, promptly responding to customer demands, or focusing on execution. However, such haste often inadvertently hampers the organization’s momentum. The road to recovery from these missteps can be daunting as the repercussions, once set in motion, are difficult to reverse: trust among colleagues erodes, managers and staff are confused about who is in charge, departmental silos intensify, and key stakeholders’ faith in leadership wanes.

To Slow Down, Add a Bit of Discipline

The concept of ‘slower is faster’ doesn’t imply that a leadership team should grind to a halt. Rather, it emphasizes the importance of the team and its members being thoughtful and a bit more planful, communicative, and reflective. Adding just a bit of discipline into the leadership team’s rhythm and how it behaves together can help the team avoid costly mistakes, rework, or lost opportunities. Below are some pragmatic practices we have observed that help leadership teams live the ‘slower is faster’ mantra.

1. Meeting Discipline: Conduct regular, leadership team meetings focused on aligning the team around key issues and challenges, as well as establishing or recalibrating important plans. Use these gatherings as platforms for testing ideas, obtaining constructive feedback, and debating alternative perspectives. While implementing this level of focused dialogue is easier said than done, incorporating it into the team’s way of operating allows for periodic reflection. These intervals help team members emerge more engaged and aligned, better equipping them to accelerate the organization’s progress.

2. Team Member Discipline: While regular meetings serve as an effective vehicle for encouraging leadership teams to slow down, the commitment of each team member to modify their behavior is crucial for the collective good. Some team members may already operate at an optimal pace and should take on the responsibility of encouraging their teammates to adopt more disciplined work habits. Others may be naturally inclined to move too quickly, often unaware of the negative impact their pace has on the organization. Such individuals will benefit from constructive feedback to enhance their self-awareness so they can adjust their pace.

The following are a few suggested behaviors for adjusting pace…

  • Clearly articulate your expectations to colleagues and direct reports, while also explaining the reasoning behind your perspectives or decisions.
  • Proactively encourage engagement with colleagues by asking for feedback and different perspectives.
  • Remain open and receptive when colleagues ask challenging questions or contest your ideas, rather than dismissing them.
  • Don’t avoid discussing issues with colleagues, even when you suspect they might hold differing points of view.
  • When speaking with employees at lower levels, make it explicit that you are seeking their input or sharing thoughts, rather than issuing directives.
  • Close the loop on communications so that all parties impacted by decisions or actions are informed and updated.
  • Be attentive and open-minded when colleagues suggest that you may be moving too quickly.

3. Learning Discipline: An important aspect of Senge’s philosophy centers on the concept of a learning organization, which strives to enhance the adaptability, flexibility, and responsiveness of teams to a changing environment. Integral to this approach is the skill for teams and individuals to slow down, process their experiences, and then adapt and adjust accordingly.

There are two practices leaders can adopt to help their teams embrace the mantra of a learning-oriented organization. First, establish a consistent rhythm of feedback and learning across various contexts: during one-on-one sessions with direct reports, after meetings, and in casual hallway discussions or video calls. These conversations don’t have to be lengthy to be effective; simple questions like “Are we approaching this the right way?” or “What’s holding us back?” or “What could we be doing differently?” can be illuminating. Another practice is to build after action reviews into how the leadership team operates. After the completion of substantive initiatives or milestones, engage the team in reviewing what worked, what didn’t and what adjustments are needed to either stay on course or get back on track.

Simple Concepts—Challenging to Apply

Adopting a ‘slower is faster’ approach can be particularly challenging for leaders, owing to a mix of external pressures – such as board and market expectations – and internal factors like balancing organizational culture with performance. The first step leadership teams need to take to embrace this philosophy is to step back and assess the potential repercussions of not slowing down, both individually and collectively. Team members need to be honest with themselves and one another about their tendencies to possibly move too quickly. Most importantly, they must commit to adopting this approach and remain open to receiving feedback when they deviate from their commitments.


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