Speed of Execution: An Essential for Survival in this Next Normal

By Dave Hickey

Back when Tom Peters’ ‘In Search of Excellence’ was about the only business book anyone had read, the concept of ‘Ready, Fire, Aim’ was one that resonated. It emphasised a bias for action and speed in execution.

The phrase was used as the title of Michael Masterson’s 2008 book aimed at start-ups and since then has usually been seen as the preserve of entrepreneurs bringing new products or services to market to gain first-mover advantage.

However, that seems to be changing as the pandemic has forced many mature businesses to develop and deploy new strategies rapidly to regain their markets or re-engage with customers.

Many business-as-usual approaches to serving customers, working with suppliers, and collaborating with colleagues—or just getting anything done—would have failed. They had to increase the speed of decision making, while improving productivity, using technology and data in new ways, and accelerating the scope and scale of innovation. And it worked for although there was no guarantee that it would for many. Risks needed to be taken, as the alternative would turn a crisis into a disaster.

Major changes included redeploying people; improving productivity, developing new products, and launching new business or operational models.

The need for speed of execution was paramount in all of these, and once the shackles of bureaucracy and slow decision-making have been removed can or should they be re-instated?

The reasons for these ‘delaying’ processes are mostly well-intentioned, many coming as the result of previous experiences. It is in their execution (as so often) that they became shackles.

Many organisations are now reinventing themselves for speed, moving to flatter and non-hierarchical structures.

But unrestrained speed will lead to its own problems. Think of Mr Scott from Star Trek – “Captain! She’ll never hold together at this speed”!

How can leaders improve their organisations’ agility while maintaining some sort of control, within the framework of a business plan and cash flow constraints?

In a recent article* McKinsey put forward a model for ‘Sustainable Speed’ comprising nine actions.

Many companies, at least initially, thought of the post-pandemic return as an event; they would turn the lights on and go back to work just as they did before. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that for many, returning to work will be a process that could take a year or more, and that they cannot go back to the way they were.

Instead, companies will want to seize the moment to reimagine and reinvent the future, building new muscle and capabilities to come back strong. Even well-run companies may find that they need to reinvent themselves more than once.

Fortune will favour the bold—and the speedy.

*McKinsey & Co: Ready, set, go: Reinventing the organization for speed in the post-COVID-19 era