Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • February 24, 2014
  • minute read

In Praise of Slow Business 

A version of this article appeared at Inc.com
SlowDownLargeThere’s a saying in my business which I’ve found myself using a lot recently: “Fast, good, cheap – you can have any two.
If you’re familiar with the phrase, you’ll know the truth it holds. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s worth noodling on:
– Producing something fast, that’s also good, doesn’t come cheap;
– You can often get something that’s good, and cheap, if you’re prepared to wait;
– If something’s fast and cheap, usually it isn’t much good.
I’ve been pondering this conundrum as I hear some of the ever-more-outlandish expectations leaders and founders have of their businesses: strategy without hard thinking; zero defects without investment in planning; bench strength without people development; culture overnight…one colleague of mine was informed by a potential client that they wanted ‘massive, impactful credibility in the marketplace’ – in a month.
Folks, you can’t build credibility in a month (not in any credible market, that is), just as you can’t build a robust culture in a weekend, and you can’t design a truly effective strategy or business model if you’re not prepared to do the hard work of gathering data, analyzing it and then, well, thinking.
There are two important reasons, I believe, why business leaders are developing an I-want-it-now attitude to many issues and challenges that simply don’t work that way:
1. The near-instant availability of information.
Remember the days when researching something meant a trip to the bookstore, or a library? When numbers got entered onto paper instead of spreadsheet cells? When gathering people’s opinions and ideas required mail (as in the US Mail) and telephone calls?
Maybe you don’t – but even if you’re too young to remember that time, it’s not hard to realize that when gathering underlying information took a lot of time (and often required a major investment in other resources, too), using that information was usually a considered, less frenzied process.
Nowadays, our access to information is virtually real time. And guess what? The consequent, massive reduction in the sunk cost required to get information leads us to expect to process that information in a similarly instantaneous fashion. Sometimes that’s just fine – real-time information about an upcoming traffic jam on my way to work should lead to me taking immediate action if it is to be of any use – but sometimes the “instantly get / instantly decide” correlation doesn’t exist: the next-day results from a new product launch may enable me to make strategic changes immediately, but will that instant decision be any good? The strategic implications may well benefit from longer study.
2. The lauding of startup mentality as a competitive advantage.
Startups need to turn on a dime to survive. Flexibility and the ability to (forgive me) ‘pivot’ are crucial in any business’s early days. Hence, decision-making can be – must be – fast.
But when a business grows and becomes complex, guess what happens? That ‘decide now or we die’ mentality becomes as inappropriate as a diaper on a twenty-year-old. In order to implement decisions fast, a larger, complex business needs to make its decisions in a more considered manner – and no amount of startup pixie dust can change that.
So if you’re frustrated with getting things done in your organization, consider the triad: Fast, good or cheap – which are you trying to short-change?

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  1. There’s also an element from Les’ own books at play. Having worked in two second generation family-run businesses in White Water, the “decide now” factor often exists, because anything less than quick, full commitment to a decision means the company flounders on the cusp of yet another decision (action) that no one will take.

    1. Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for weighing in! One the biggest challenges of Whitewater is even if the decision is made, there’s no guarantee it will be executed. While it may be painful to slow down the process initially, building that machine for decision-making and ensuring accountability will be key to achieving Predictable Success long-term.
      Here are a couple of additional great resources on how to make good decisions as a team (http://bit.ly/1xVy5Qa) and restore communications and accountability during Whitewater (http://bit.ly/1Stt2pG).
      Kind Regards,
      Sarah Berger, Community Manager, Predictable Success

  2. When it comes to NFP, volunteers can achieve all three, good, fast and cheap (free in terms of $). I think that the cost however comes down to developing a rewarding and fruitful organisation, rather than merely focussing on $.

    1. Hi BJ,
      Thank you for your comments! NFPs definitely pose their own unique set of challenges and opportunities. Les examines these more in the webinar, Predictable Success for Mission-based Organizations, available here: http://bit.ly/OTMSH0.
      Kind Regards,
      Sarah Berger, Community Manager, Predictable Success

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