Acceleration as Strategy, Urgency as Doctrine

Three things happened today that created a sort of nuclear reaction in my head. The result was a rather blinding flash of insight concerning a set of knotty problems I am wrangling with. The first thing was a reaction, from a colleague, to a whirlwind burst of activity I put in last night to react to an opportunity. The second was an unusual compliment from another colleague. The third was a pre-release review copy of John Kotter’s upcoming A Sense of Urgency arriving in the mail today (check out the HBP site for Kotter, which includes a video)

Somehow the raw material brought me one of my increasingly rare moments of clarity (my last Aha! of comparable magnitude was 2 years ago). Condensed to a sound-bite, my insight can be summed up as follows: for your business to win today, you must adopt acceleration as your strategy, and urgency as your doctrine. Let me explain, via some bigger bite-sized thoughts.

One: Some Compliments Validating Ready-Fire-Aim

I most appreciate compliments that pick out specific behaviors and validate my sense of what is the smartest way to work and deliver, and these are rare enough that I remember them all. My way, of course, is Ready, Fire, Aim (RFA).

In the last five years, I’ve only received RFA-related compliments five times. Here are three that will make sense without more context. Oddly enough, two of them arrived today.

The furious burst of opportunity-intersecting activity that kept me up last night led to an emailed compliment from a colleague that began: Venkat, When do you sleep! I am amazed by …

The second one was from another colleague, who I respect a lot, but who I hadn’t connected with in a while. He opened his getting-back-in-touch email with a bit of wry self-deprecation: we met a couple of times at the beginning, but you very quickly and correctly realized that I could not be of help at the speed at which you operate.

And the third one, from several months ago, which I can’t quote verbatim, is from a phenomenal programmer who had just joined my team, and to whom I’d sent some very dense, focused emails: for somebody who talks so much, you pack an awful lot of information into what you say, and I mean that as a compliment.

Here is why I so value these compliments: they acknowledge what I call my ready-fire-aim mentality, something I worked really hard to acquire. As you probably know if you read this blog regularly, my more natural mode of operation is armchair philosopher. Boiler-room style RFA does not come naturally to me, which means I operate these days largely via bouts of lethargy punctuated by bursts of action. Call it a schizoid lifestyle, but so far, it hasn’t killed me.

Two: Leaps of Faith and Opportunism

I talked a little bit about how I learned this style of operating in my piece: The Three-Leaps-Of-Faith Rule. When your ability to make leaps of faith becomes routine, that is when you are ready to start operating in opportunistic mode, and I wrote about that in The Fine Art of Opportunism.

Think about this learning curve: learning to drive a car; learning to change lanes carefully; learning to safely but rapidly change lanes nearly constantly, in heavy traffic, to beat the overall flow rate of the highway (I don’t drive this way by the way; I am not that good a driver, but I’ve ridden, mildly panicked, with people who are).

Three: Urgency, Acceleration and Emotion

You breathe harder going from 0-60 mph in 15 seconds than you do cruising at 80mph for 15 seconds. Acceleration and deceleration create emotions. Deceleration creates despair, but let’s not talk about that. Acceleration creates urgency and exhilaration. When consequential things are involved, you only have urgency. But a sense of urgency is not a bad thing. As Kotter notes:

It is often believed that people cannot maintain a high sense of urgency over a prolonged period of time without burnout. Yet, with all the alertness, initiative and speed, true urgency doesn’t produce dangerous levels of stress.

He goes on to note that besides the clarity of focus that accompanies true urgency, true urgency also makes the art of prioritization trivially easy. When you run into a grizzly bear while hiking, you know that saving your backpack isn’t important. Black and white. When you are changing lanes rapidly in heavy unsteady traffic, you know that your cellphone conversation with the President of the United States isn’t important. At least I hope you do. False urgency doesn’t have this natural release valve of being able to recognize and drop the contextually unimportant.

In the world of business, as Kotter explains, communicating that emotion of urgency is what separates failed attempts at change from successful ones.

Four: The Doctrine of Urgency

I explained my rather fussy semantics around the words strategy, tactics, doctrine and operations in this piece. Doctrine to me is a set of beliefs. Kotter’s idea of urgency is an element of an extremely good doctrine for businesses in 2008:

“What is the single biggest error people make when they try to change?… They did not create a high enough sense of urgency among enough people to set the stage for making a challenging leap into some new direction.”

This belief would make my top 3. Curiously enough, in my own piece cited above, I chose to illustrate the idea of doctrine with one from the US military that is along the same lines. Quoting myself:

The idea in the US military that one must control the tempo of a military engagement is an element of doctrine (hence “shock and awe”).

Five: Strategies of Acceleration

By my semantics, strategy refers to what-if stories about the future. Successful strategies come in many genres, but there is a class of success stories that could be called acceleration stories, that share with pulp-fiction thrillers the same acceleration-with-emotion signature.

My first moment of dim awareness of this came via an excellent heuristic that a colleague (the same one who complimented my dense emails) shared with me about team building: when I think about whether or not to add someone to the team, I ask myself, “will he/she slow us down, or speed us up?”

That’s the kind of anecdote you encounter in acceleration stories. Kotter gets this too, he characterizes people who “get” urgency doctrines as:

They don’t move at 35 mph when 65 mph is needed to win.

In growth initiatives, we focus too much on scaling and actual structural growth, and too little on the essential dynamic: acceleration. Remember, growth can be a slowing growth. Acceleration, not growth is the signature of innovation. I’ll take a small team that is moving a little bit faster every day over a larger team that is grinding to a halt. People and money aren’t the ultimate resources in business. The ability to accelerate is.

I had the rare opportunity of watching a night launch of the space shuttle a few months ago. That is an awe-inspiring sight; acceleration at its most potent. You watch as some lumbering megatons of metal and fuel, stuff that was moving to the launchpad painfully slowly on a crawler at 1 mph just days before, suddenly, within minutes, drives skywards to escape velocity, with a huge flame attached at the bottom (you have to see this to believe it — the fire plume is really huge, like skyscraper huge).

This kind of bottle-rocket acceleration to escape velocity, of course, is rarely needed. What you need is the acceleration capacity for lane-changing and overtaking in a competitive world. More on bottle rockets in the last section.

Acceleration, to continue the driving/lane changing metaphor from parts 2 and 3, isn’t just pointless thrill-seeking. It is what you need to keep moving in a world slowly grinding to a gridlock of complacency. Or a furious, honking, road-raging gridlock.

Six: False Urgency

Kotter has plenty to say about both tired, quiet, complacent gridlocks and furious, road-raging false urgency. He gets almost Shakespearean in describing false urgency:

…[E]mployees scramble: sprinting, meeting, task-forcing, emailing — all of which create a howling wind of activity…that destroys much and creates nothing.

Recall this famous bit from Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I never cease to be amazed by Shakespeare. Though he was talking about something else entirely, he still managed to accidentally describe both complacency and false urgency in one eloquent verse.

Shakespeare A+, though he wasn’t taking this test. Kotter A-. But more practically, Kotter notes:

With a false sense of urgency, an organization does have a great deal of energized action, but it is driven by anxiety, anger and frustration, and not a focused determination to win as soon as is reasonably possible.

Seven: Carpe Diem! on the High Seas

Dead Poets Society, it should be obvious to you, is one of my favorite movies. The first glimpse we get of the visceral, acceleration-oriented carpe diem style of the charismatic teacher, John Keating (a surprisingly non-hammy Robin Williams), is when he gets his students to tear out, from a volume of poetry, the stodgy bureacratic introduction by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, PhD.

That’s what a doctrine of urgency, driving a strategy of acceleration, looks like. There is some destruction, and you better have a philosophy of destruction handy, to save your sanity.

It is no accident that a naval metaphor is part of DPS: Keating has his students to address him O Captain, my Captain. Whitman’s O Captain, My Captain (itself an allegory about Lincoln’s assassination) plays a key role in the narrative. Another great naval metaphor: clear the decks for action!

And think about all those steamship-era naval stories, where a furious race is won by one captain running out of coal and using the stateroom wooden furniture to keep the fires blazing. False urgency is more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

I don’t like individual, urgency-creating, charismatic Captain figures though — I prefer a general sense of collaborative urgency. It is more productive. Remember, in DPS, one of Keating’s pupils died.

Eight: Agility in the Kitchen, Agility in the Sky

Let me conclude with two more references to pieces by me. One of my personal favorite pieces is An MBA in Gordon’s Restaurant, where I tried to infer business lessons from the popular show, Kitchen Nighmares. In my seven-step “Ramsey” strategy for turnarounds, Step 6 was the following:

[In each episode]he [Ramsey] got the staff to experience success, and get high on it by creating a critical success experiment. In each case, the restaurant shut down and relaunched with some major hoopla. In each case, the staff struggled and in parts, crumbled, dealing with the onslaught of customers pouring in. In each case, this remark was made: “this staff doesn’t know what it is like to be busy.” In each case operational inefficiencies were immediately exposed and corrected in war mode. Translation: Get people to experience what success feels like, even if only for a day.

Again, that’s what the urgency-acceleration combination feels like.

And let’s me quote myself one final time, from my review of The Age of Speed, by Vince Poscente (an equally useful and equally little book on the same theme, but very different in style and message — it is more about exhilaration than urgency). This should also help think about space shuttle launches versus agile highway overtaking.

Poscente posits four personality types in organizations. Classify yourself:

  • Zeppelins: resist speed and try to slow things down when things start speeding up to the point where they lose control.
  • Balloons: don’t resist speed, but exit the game and find a niche for themselves where they can live a slow-paced life. Balloons are the uniquely skilled people who are not needed in commodity quantities in the economy.
  • Bottle rockets: are speed-at-all-costs individuals with zero agility who are both dangerous and uncontrolled/uncontrollable, and go out with a bang and collapse.
  • Jets: are fast and agile enough to make speed worth it.

Obviously I am a jet and most of you are zeppelins. Okay, I think I am actually a balloon at heart.

Today, I’d add a caveat that even bottle rockets are good, if they can get to escape velocity and launch a satellite before they go out with a bang. Hmm… maybe I’ve been enlightened all along, and today I just got myself some meta-enlightenment about having been enlightened all along.

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter