When all other options fail, a company learns to be a nimble competitor.
Does your organization move quickly enough in the face of stiff competition? How do you motivate a slow-moving culture to be more nimble?
A recent client of ours held a small and declining share of a quickly changing market; although they specialized in an attractive niche, they were increasingly getting beaten by the bigger players in that niche. Working with a small sub-team, we helped them align on the need for a new offer that would help them compete more effectively. At a key leadership meeting, we received the go-ahead to further develop and implement the new offer.
After the meeting, the CEO pulled us aside and instructed us to not get bogged down in seeking permission from the executive team for the detailed development and implementation. He asked us to focus the executives' time on customer experience as well as financial results. For everything else, he explicitly empowered us to make decisions ourselves and "ask for forgiveness" later.
Move fast and ask for forgiveness later: Seems like a straightforward request, right?
In fact, we found the mandate challenging to execute for a few reasons:
-The culture was built around a software release mentality, which encouraged a high degree of planning. We were shoehorning a new offer into existing release schedules, which greatly upset their existing plans.
-The culture did not always reward entrepreneurialism or taking big risks. People were hesitant to move quickly without the "comfort blanket" of executive approval. To some degree, people focused more on making recommendations for the executive team to decide, rather than making decisions themselves.
-We were asking a company suffering from Not Invented Here syndrome to embrace a joint venture partner critical to quickly releasing the new offer.
So how did we overcome these challenges? We used a multi-pronged approach:
-We formed a decision-making team with one executive team leader along with key functional leaders. We held daily meetings where the team teed up and made decisions on key issues. Thus we were never more than 24 hours away from surfacing and agreeing how to resolve roadblocks.
-Early in the development we held an all-day planning session where we shared the urgency for action and the high-level plan, then worked function-by-function through all the issues and interdependencies. Through this, we made each function accountable for developing a detailed execution plan. We also surfaced a number of interdependencies among functions and implementation issues that we could track in our daily leadership meetings.
-Everywhere we could, we made individuals rather than teams accountable for delivering to schedule. Individual accountability is a great motivator!
-We pushed back hard and consistently against any general excuses for inaction. Any time someone came to us and said, "I cannot move forward because I need more clarity," we forcefully replied, "Tell us exactly what clarity or decisions you need, and we will get you answers on those immediately." We put the burden on the functional teams to move quickly and fought back against complacency or FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) wherever we found it.
-We pushed our joint venture partners as hard as we pushed ourselves.
The work is still in progress, but we are tracking very well to our release schedule. We are stretching the organization to its cultural limits, but as an under-performing player in a quickly moving market, they really have no choice: Move fast and ask for forgiveness later must be the new model going forward.
KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree. @karlstark