In The High-Speed Company: Creating Urgency and Growth in a Nanosecond Culture (Portfolio, 2015), authors Jason Jennings and Laurence Haughton explore what makes rapid growth companies so successful. In the following edited excerpt, they challenge four commonly-held beliefs about success--beliefs that could actually be slowing you down. 

In interviews with 11,000 business leaders over the last dozen years, when I asked, "What keeps you awake at night?" I received a virtually unanimous answer: "We lack the urgency necessary to get everything done much faster."

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Sadly, 48 percent of bosses report they are taking even longer now to reach decisions and another 31 percent report they're no faster than they were a decade ago. That's nearly four out of five businesses that are falling behind. 

What slows companies down isn't an unpredictable economy, political uncertainty, or acts of God. Speed bumps are, in 83 percent of all cases, internal and controllable issues, and high-speed companies know how to successfully navigate those issues. They're faster, more agile, and encourage a culture of urgency--without worrying about the myths I've listed below.

1. High speed companies "amaze and delight" their customers

You can't grow fast if your good customers are leaving. But you don't need to "amaze and delight" to keep your good customers coming back. 

"We're not looking for over-the-top service to stay loyal," 75,000 business clients and consumers told the researchers from the Corporate Executive Board. "Just don't lose our luggage, don't make dealing with you a pain in the ass, and don't deliver less than you promised us."

In other words; just don't suck. Yet business often sucks, and most CEOs are oblivious.

High speed companies understand the immutable law of suckage: "By the time you figure out you suck've sucked for a long, long time." Think of Sears, Sony, Blackberry, Radio Shack, and Blockbuster, for example. They had been disappointing their customers for a long time before their revenues headed south.

Figure out the four or five basic expectations customers have for your category of business. Find out firsthand if you have executed each flawlessly (not with some survey monkey questions like "are you satisfied?" but with clear measurement of "did we do A, B, and C?") And if you find you've dropped the ball, have a fast and sure method to say, "I'm sorry," and demonstrate how it won't happen again.

2. Every minute of planning pays off

We've taken common sense in business (don't run your business by impulse and emotion) to exaggerated levels. How exaggerated? Big companies now spend 200,000 man hours planning and budgeting for every one billion dollars in revenue. 

That means that companies like Kmart, General Motors, Lehman Brothers, Motorola and others invested tens of billions planning a path to success.

  • Effective planning can save you time and money. But as the North American President of IKEA told us, "Exaggerated planning is death."
  • Exaggerated planning wastes time. 80 percent of meeting time these days addresses only 20 percent of what's really important.
  • Exaggerated planning causes executives to be rigid and lose flexibility as they blindly administer the "500 page plan from headquarters."

And it contributes to "paralysis by analysis," where our worry over being wrong ties individual initiative into knots.

Instead of exaggerated plans, truly high-speed companies have a short list of "the shalls and shall nots" for their business. These guiding principles act as boundaries--increasing ethical, strategic action and motivating everyone to adapt, improvise and overcome all obstacles quickly. Everyone knows them and is empowered to act in accordance with them.

3. Consequences make people accountable at high-speed companies

When an engineer in ancient Rome finished building a bridge, by law, he had to sleep under it. Centuries later, the English expanded on Roman law by making the family of the engineer join him as he slept under that new bridge.

Harsh consequences made people more accountable in those ancient minds--if your work was defective, you and your loved ones would suffer. It's a tradition a lot of today's bosses think might help them make managers more accountable.

CEO Bob Engel has a better idea. Under Engel's leadership at the fast growing, highly profitable, incredibly productive company, CoBank, he uses engagement and clarity as the catalyst for total accountability.

"Our leadership teams sit across the table from those expected to follow through and says, 'This is something important and we're going to entrust you to be accountable. Now, let us tell you what we were thinking, where we're trying to go and let's discuss it and find out what you need from our end.'"

"You got to be out there," says Engel, "and be on the same page."

4. Nothing succeeds like success

  • In 1988 one in four beers sold in America was a Budweiser. Now it's one in twelve.
  • Between 1990 and 1999 The Gap grew sales double digits every year. Since 2004 sales have stalled.

Seven years after Howard Schultz left the day-to-day at Starbucks he critiqued his successors, "We've made a series of decisions that have led to the watering down of the Starbucks experience." These decisions, he concluded, "took away the soul."

In all these cases, and for every other high flyer that plummeted to earth over the last four decades, success has been a double-edged sword.

Nothing beats the feeling of winning, putting up big numbers and leaving the competition in the dust. But success also makes risk takers risk adverse and empowers the yes men at headquarters to sweep uncomfortable facts under the rug.

High speed companies take to heart the timeless wisdom of Franklin, Grove and Solo.

"Doubt your own infallibility," wrote Ben Franklin.

"Only the paranoid survive," wrote Intel's Andy Grove.

"Great kid...don't get cocky," advised Han Solo.