By Matthew Cushen
When I chat to leaders of large companies (amongst others, I help IKEA and AB InBev with innovation) the thing they most envy about start-ups it the ability to move fast. But that is a generalisation. It is not all small businesses that move fast. But a defining characteristic of businesses that have successfully scaled up, is that they have and continue to move at speed. They have cultivated and nurtured the habit of gathering insight quickly, making decisions quickly and executing quickly.
Speed is important for growing businesses, as it means:
Every small business starts with a structural advantage that means it ought to be able to do things quickly. But some founders lack the drive that generates momentum. Other start OK but lose the habit as the businesses grows, letting a growing team create complexity and places to hide. In our experience as investors in start-ups, there are three things to nurture, practice and never take for granted.
Make talking to your customers, suppliers, investors and anyone with experience part of your day to day. Hunt out different points of view and listen closely. Be paranoid about what your competition is doing, and how they are doing it. Don’t leave insight gathering to be a discrete activity – by the time you think you need to, it will be too late. Instead keep your ears to the ground and always open. Gather lots of dots so you can be the first to join them up.
At the end of each day, ask yourself and/or your co-founder – what have we learnt today that we didn’t know yesterday? What new conversations have we had, things have we read, observations we have made that we have never seen before?
The life of a start-up is one of constant decisions. Some are large and will have far reaching consequences. Some are small. It amazes me how some entrepreneurs end up being too myopic with the big strategic choices and too ponderous with the small stuff.
With strategic decisions, don’t just go with your first, intuitive guess. Take a step back and (still quickly) create a few possibilities. Think expansively about the choices you have, not just the obvious choices but also those less logical, less run of the mill. Both for what you are trying to do and how you are doing to go about it. Think about how you can zig whilst others zag. Then step back to consider the pros & cons of the options. Gather some information – maybe run one or a dozen experiments. Then have all relevant parties in a room until you reach a decision. The only excuse to then waiver is if new information comes to light.
With the small stuff – don’t sweat it. Make sure that one person is accountable and let them get on with it.
Never leaves decisions hanging. Only allow decisions to be delayed whilst more information is being gathered or maybe for the big ones for a couple of nights sleep – where our brains do their magic and process and reorder all the information they have gathered, allowing us remarkable clarity when we wake up. Don’t leave any decision without clear steps to get to a resolution. That may mean managing your board or other investors. They are not serving you well if they are insisting on being part of any decision but then not making themselves available to make it with you.
As US General George Patton once said “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” Which leads us nicely on to…
It is the ability to make decisions quickly that large businesses most envy, but that benefit is lost unless executional momentum is created. Always accompany a decision with a plan – that means specific actions, owners of those actions and agreed dates. And as soon as that plan is formulated, ask the question – what can we do to do this faster? We lazily allow ourselves to believe there is a direct relationship between low speed and high quality. But actually, that is rare. More generally, momentum is the friend of innovation. As a leader of a business, role modelling this question – habitually – will get everyone thinking about speed.
Thinking about the plan also means identifying when things can happen concurrently rather than sequentially. It means spotting dependencies and making sure they are completed or removed before they cause delay.
Build an experimental mindset. Whether building a product, a new sales plan or a new accounting process, jump from one stage to the next with small steps, with quick and cheap experiments then fast iteration based upon the learning.