Much like a marathon runner nearing the end of the race and finding another racer catching up to them, many of the world’s biggest companies find themselves needing to respond quickly to a more nimble competitor when they’re at their most sluggish.
CEOs and senior executives talk constantly about the accelerating pace of change and the importance of corporate agility. But most of them preside over companies where some of the most basic processes have slowed dramatically. Hiring a new employee, for instance, takes an average of two months now, up by 50% from 2010. The average time to complete a corporate IT project increased by nearly 1.5 months despite wholehearted adoption of practices like the Agile methodology.
And this slowness isn’t just a bit of corporate annoyance for high-powered managers. A CEB survey of 6,000 employees spread across 10 corporate functions found that when companies slow down, they waste staff resources to the tune of $30 million annually. What’s worse is that slow corporate functions delay critical business initiatives by about two months on average – which, for a median S&P 500 company, risks more than $80 million in revenue.
Reduce the Drag
On average, more than one-quarter of employees carry out their core work tasks too slowly. And managers bear the brunt, spending one-third of their time picking up the slack for their teams.
But this is not the only cost. Slowness affects corporate functions and the overall business. When employees in a particular corporate function are slow to execute, there is a 90% chance of a negative effect on another part of the business. Customer Service, R&D, Strategy, and Sales are the functions most affected by slow work from other teams.
On the other end of the spectrum, Legal, IT, and Finance are the functions most liable to cause this kind of corporate drag. While no function is totally immune to dragging down their colleagues, 33% of employees in these functions execute too slowly – one-third more than the average.
And while most executives are aware that they need to work faster, this has yet to translate into actual results. Nearly eight in 10 employees identified as working too slowly have already been told by their managers to speed up.
Exacerbating this problem is the fact that managers also, and quite understandably, send out mixed messages about speed. They tell their teams to also focus on the quality of their work, comprehensiveness and accuracy. As a result, when employees feel constrained, they prioritize other things such as work quality or lower costs over speed.
Four Ways to Speed Up
Most companies blame slow decision making processes, skill gaps, and poorly-managed workflows for corporate drag. While these things do matter, the most important first step is to provide a supportive work environment; without this, no initiative aimed at faster execution will succeed.
To create this kind of environment leaders have to improve the consistency of the signals they send their teams. There are four ways they can do this.
Match what you say to what you do: Managers need to walk the talk and if project reviews focus mostly on quality and scale, it can inadvertently signal that speed matters less. For instance, managers should highlight the importance of launching a new product fast and dealing with glitches later.
Ensure consistent messaging: Companies have to deliver a single, consistent message in what they value most, particularly in areas where employees have historically prioritized things other than speed.
Help employees identify the right trade-offs: There will be instances where employees will have to make a trade-off, so managers should clarify where it is okay to give up something for quick implementation.
Create opportunities for peers to share experiences on speeding-up work: Companies should get employees to share their experience of balancing speed and quality – particularly during stressful times when speed is more likely to get traded off.