Sarah Green: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast. From Harvard Business Review, I'm Sarah Green. I'm here today with Ed Boswell, CEO and president of The Forum Corporation and co-author of Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Ed Boswell: Sure, it's great to be here, Sarah.
Sarah Green: Now you start the book with a pretty sobering statistic. Only 30% of strategic initiatives are successfully executed. What role does speed, or maybe the lack of it, play?
Ed Boswell: Well the whole point of the book was to really look at this intersection of where urgency, or speed, intersects with execution in getting results. And what we found is that sobering statistic that regardless of all the initiatives over the past 20 years to reengineer processes, leverage technology, the fact remains that most companies are still only 30% likely to actually achieve.
And you mix that, or combine that, with the fact that speed is becoming more and more just table stakes for companies to remain competitive. More and more companies are actually basing their competitive differentiation on how quickly they can execute. So we wanted to look at this intersection of speed, on the one hand and execution on the other. And see what we could learn about that.
Sarah Green: So what are some of the barriers that get in the way of executing?
Ed Boswell: Well there are a couple of barriers. And it was really interesting because one of the things that we learned in this research -- and we looked at companies all around the world, we did in depth case studies of 18 different organizations, and we surveyed over 340 chief to executives around the world -- and one of the things we found is that sometimes you go slow because you're trying to go too fast. That is, you pay too much attention to pace.
In fact, one of the things we found it the slower companies in our sample were companies that, in fact, were way too busy to ever really do an adequate job planning, or communicating that plan, or maybe taking a step back while they were executing to see if they needed to make any midcourse adjustments. They were just too busy. So there was this over attention to pace and to speed. That's one trap. Another trap is a lot of companies think that all you need to do is reengineer processes. Make things simple, streamline things, bring in some new technology. And again, we found it that's helpful up to a point. The missing ingredient in all of these situations was the people factor.
Sarah Green: Well let's talk a little bit more than about the people factor. What needs to happen there?
Ed Boswell: Well we discovered there are basically three things. There are only three things that you need to worry about. One of them is ensuring that the organization has clarity about the direction that you're going. So there's a shared understanding of what this new strategy is all about. Or what this initiative is really trying to accomplish.
The second thing is unity. And that is everyone is wholeheartedly committed to achieving those goals and working together to achieve that outcome. And then the third piece, interesting enough, is agility. The flexibility of the organization to fine-tune, tweak, or even change, the strategic plan if conditions require that. So it's clarity, it's unity, and agility. Those three people factors combined with an attention to pace, combined with an attention to process, leads you to strategic speed.
Sarah Green: Can we maybe get into an example of where you see some of these best practices happening?
Ed Boswell: Sure, well there are a lot of great examples in the book. One of the ones that I was most impressed with his Vodafone. Now Vodafone is the world's largest mobile cell phone carrier around. And they're based in London. And we had the chance to interview the CEO, Vittorio Colao. And he's known for Speed. So we were really interested in understanding, so how do you take this behemoth of an organization – I mean they operate in virtually every country around the world -- and they've grown very, very quickly through acquisitions.
So it's actually not one integrated company, it's a lot of little companies all under the Vodafone umbrella. And he was saying to me that that's really a recipe for a slowness. Because there are just so many people to bring on board and that sort of thing, and to communicate with. And yet, they have a reputation for doing things really, really quickly. And his secret is basically this: that he keeps it really, really simple. And he creates an accountability.
So he would say, Sarah, I want you to go create this business. And he said now ordinarily if you if you do that in any other organization, Sarah would go off and she would know, boy this is really, really important, so I better not screw it up. And so when you say that little word, I don't want to screw it up, you tend to go slow. You tend to be very cautious. You're doing things in increments. You're not doing anything bold. You're not doing anything fast, or speedy.
So what he tells his executives is he says Sarah, I want you to create this business for me. I want you to do it really fast. I'd like you do it within the next year. I know you're going to make mistakes. And that's OK. I will not fire you for making mistakes over the next year. I will fire your if you keep making the same mistake over and over again. But trust me, I'll cover your back.
The other thing is you ruffle some feathers in the organization as you try to achieve this ambitious goal, just have people call me. And I'll take care of everything. So he said that it was a combination of being really clear on the outcome. Being clear on the time frame. Being clear on what accountability. But also providing that trust that you're not going to get fired for making mistakes. And I'll cover your back if other people come and complain.
Sarah Green: Now as we're talking here about sort of slow versus fast, as I want to look back something you said earlier. Which is sometimes focusing on pace can actually cause problems. That reminded me of –I think it's a military saying -- that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Did you find that in companies that you researched sort of stepping on the gas, or intentionally trying to speed up has actually caused more problems?
Ed Boswell: Well it actually has. In fact, we often with audiences where we share this research, we show them a number of characteristics, 10 characteristics. And we ask how many of you exhibit these characteristics? And there are practices, such as going fast, really putting your foot down on the accelerator. So a lot of people raised their hand and say, yep we do all these things. thinking that these are the good things to do.
Actually, all those characteristics were common to the slow companies. So it's very, very interesting. It's almost like you need to go slow in order to go fast. And the interesting thing, this isn't just a nice bit of management speak. We looked at the financial results, the financial performance, of fast companies versus slow companies. And it turns out that the companies in our sample that do all these best practices around clarity, around unity, and agility, tend to have much higher sales. About 40% higher. And about 52% higher operating profits. So the companies that go slow in order to go fast enjoy much better financial performance.
Sarah Green: That's interesting. And I want a little bit more about how to get that to individual companies. We talked about something that individual leaders can say to their reports sort of get their back. But you talk also in the book about managing climate. And I want to get into that, because I think that's something that may sound familiar as a challenge to everyone watching. What do you mean my managing climate, and what has to happen there?
Ed Boswell: Sure, well there are four leadership practices that we think create clarity, unity, and agility. So one of them is about affirming strategies. Another is around driving initiatives. Another is around cultivating experience. And fourth is around managing climate. And so for your viewers, some of whom might be familiar with climate, we're certainly not talking about that weather outside.
It's the measurable perception of what it's like to work in a particular workplace. And it's characterized by some very clear-cut dimensions. Like how clear are people? Is there a high degree of teamwork? Are there high standards? Do people feel accountable? Are people recognized and rewarded for good performance? These are all the things that make up we feel, or how we perceive, about a climate. And it turns out that we found out that the better the climate is, the faster the organization is, the higher the odds are that you actually can execute with speed.
Sarah Green: Is there any sort of common blockers that you've found in managing climate? Any kind of common problems that people should be especially on the lookout for?
Ed Boswell: Well one of the ones that we see a lot is that there's not clear lines of accountability or responsibility. So everyone know something has to get done, but no one knows really who's on point for that. And so just being clear about that responsibility, and then combining that with high standards, of the level of performance or output that you're expecting that's a really winning in combination.
Sarah Green: ED Boswell, thanks so much for joining us today.
Ed Boswell: Thank you, Sarah.
Sarah Green: That's was Ed Boswell, CEO of the Forum Corporation and author of Strategic Speed. For more, go to hbr.org.