Last week I spent a day with the top 150 executives of a major US home products business, looking at ways that they can increase the pace and urgency of their organisation. As ever, when I’m teaching or leading a workshop, I end up learning at least as much as the participants.

During my planning for the day, I went through the various articles – e.g. Small Steps, Giant Leaps – and my book, First & Fast, that I’ve written on this subject. As I pulled the key messages together, a light bulb went on: I realised that there are four key characteristics of fast-paced businesses that set them apart from their more sluggish rivals.

These four characteristics underpin everything that happens in high-speed organisations, from strategy development through to operational execution, innovation delivery and performance management. They are like the company’s DNA; the building blocks from which everything in the organisation is put together.

The four key characteristics are these:

  1. Focus.

    As my old boss at Boots, Richard Baker, once told me, “You can’t spray and sprint.” It is essential that you don’t try and do everything, but focus on those activities and initiatives that will have the biggest impact on performance. That means establishing goal focus – clarifying the # 1 business goal that will drive your key decisions and actions – strategic focus, innovation focus and agenda focus. Ask yourself how many priorities you have. If you’re trying to pursue more than a handful of priorities then it is likely you are both confusing and slowing down your organisation.

  2. Action.

    All fast-paced companies have a bias for action. They don’t try to gold-plate solutions, but systematically apply the 80/20 rule and move when they’re 80% ready. They also have a passion for learning and are able to create and test rapid prototypes en route to creating a new, better solution. I’ve used this quote many times before, but I can’t put it any better than Mike Bloomberg from his book, Bloomberg By Bloomberg: “While our competitors are still sucking their thumbs trying to make their design perfect, we’re already on prototype version #5. By the time our rivals are ready with wires and screws, we’re on version #10. It gets back to planning versus action. We act from day one; others plan how to plan – for months.”

  3. Simplicity.

    Complexity is the enemy of pace and even in an increasingly complex world, it is critical that you keep things as simple as possible. A simple organisation is lean, with few layers and broad spans of control, so that managers have clear accountabilities and decision-rights. It also has simple processes around planning and approvals and simple rules that support, rather than inhibit, people taking ownership for action and delivery.

  4. Top-Team Together.

    At its heart, pace is a leadership issue. Everyone across the organisation takes their lead from the leader and the leadership team. It is essential that the top team consistently display the behaviours and characteristics demanded of fast-paced companies. They should be focused and demanding of their people, move to action quickly – making not deferring decisions – and keep things simple for their teams. And they should do this together, so that your behavioural standards and expectations remain consistent and clear.

You may have noticed that these four characteristics – Focus, Action, Simplicity and Top-Team Together – create the acronym FAST. I believe that they are easy to both understand and apply, with no special knowledge or capability required. In other words, any company can become a FAST company.

So come on, what are you waiting for?


© Stuart Cross 2016. All rights reserved.