How to Lead with Speed


The Importance of Speed

Anyone who has worked with me knows that I am passionate about speed. It’s a critical success factor in a competitive world. Of course, speed follows strategy. If you are going fast down the wrong road that isn’t going to help your organization.

One of the very best books I have read on speed is Lead with Speed: Fire up your team, power your engines of development, and make your organization soar. Alan Willett nailed it, in my view, as he outlines ways to help leaders accelerate projects in a way that is practical and actionable. Alan is an author, speaker, consultant and expert at helping organizations improve results. His experience and global work is evident in every chapter.

I recently spoke with Alan about his important work in this area.



How is speed different today than previous eras?

The difference is mainly in the global scale of the need for speed pressure.

For example, the Vasa was a warship built between 1626 and 1628. It is one of the earlier “let’s go fast” projects I have read about. The king of Swede was in a hurry for various reasons  and some of the reasons were actually important.  This project was pushed fast. It was well funded.

And the Vasa sank on its very first time in the water, after sailing less than one mile killing 15 people on the ship.

My point is the need for speed is not brand new.

The key difference today is that global competition has grown immensely over the past two hundred years, growing more intense every decade.

This pressure is so constant on leaders it almost fades into the background.  But it is always there.



Tell us more about the Alan Willett way of “leading with speed”.

A long time ago, I came to learn that we control the accelerator.  If we learn how to push it, we can increase our speed to value.  We can get control of where we are driving our projects.  Here are a few examples of what I mean by getting control of the accelerator.

I developed a mindset for speed that includes a guidance system.  I learned that driving for the right value, and the right-sized value, is a key to driving speed.  I learned that the talent and experience the people I bring in to help is critical to speed.

I learned to master the economics of speed.  In other words, I mastered control of the process of work and a way to measure how effective and efficient I and my teams are in driving to best speed for value.

I learned that speed doesn’t matter if you crash, or sink.

I learned that if you do crash, with the right mindset, you can learn from the crash and increase the speed of the next phase of work.



Exceptional leaders “own the accelerator.” Would you contrast a leader who does this well with someone who doesn’t?

There is a large difference in results, especially longer-term results, between good leaders and exceptional leaders.  I will provide three examples.

First example: exceptional leaders can gain speed from failure.

Back to the Vasa for a moment.  The historical records are of course not complete, but it appears to me that there was a lesson learned session.  However, I suspect it was more looking for “who to blame.”

The exceptional leader would have learned from the sinking, from the whole development process.  If Sweden really learned from this, they would have built masterpieces of boats with superior weapons and speed for the time period.  Recent books have been written about the lessons learned, but that was too late to conduct a proper lesson learned.

Second example: exceptional leaders know “why” things work.

I know many good managers who get things done, but they don’t know why.  They do not have the underlying measurement system in place to understand what is going on.  If the projects they are leading get in trouble, that trouble is much less likely to be handled well.

Exceptional leaders that run projects know the top five reasons why projects might get in trouble and behind.  More than knowing the five reasons, if they have a delay, they will know what magnitude of the cause is from each of those reasons.  Knowing why enables the leader to fix the problems with much greater speed.



If you are on a team that is struggling, where do you begin if you want true transformation?

I have been in that position many times.  In fact, as a consultant, I am often hired to take the troubled team and transform them into the tremendous.

The place I usually start is to define what the true expectations of excellence are for that project.  Teams that  know what excellence looks like will be inspired to reach for excellence.   I ensure that those expectations of excellence are in the language and domain of the team.

Further, I contrast that future expectation of excellence with the current state.  I provide a visionary pathway of how we can move together from our current state to a new state.

The final part of the “beginning” of the transformation is to remind all team members, and often management, that they have all likely solved hard problems before.  I remind them that we are capable of transformation to excellence.



I love your chapter on speed mindset. You share several ways to change that mindset to lead with speed. Tell us about just one of them and how it can hold a team back from success.

Context matters!

Owning the accelerator for yourself and your team’s speed means you must master context.

This visual from the book gives a sense of what I am talking about.

Leaders that are aware of context use the same approach over and over again treating every new project as the same.  If they are using a Get it Done approach when they are in the Gamble Wisely quadrant, they are likely to be stuck in a quagmire of technology quality issues as well as having an angry customer because they missed the customer need.

If they are in the Get it Done quadrant and are using the prototyping approaches suggested for Gamble Wisely, they will find that they lost significant speed.  They could have achieved the value the customer needs much faster with a different approach.



You talk about leading effective meetings. What’s just one tip that leaders can take away from your study in this area?

Treat meetings as setting the drumbeat rhythm for the people attending them.  What I mean by this is that you should be aware that meetings are an excellent way to set the pace for the organization.  They are a model for how work should be getting accomplished.

And to make another riff off Context Matters, it does here as well.  Leaders should vary the pace and what happens in the meetings depending on the current context of the project.  If a project is in the creative stage, there should be ample room for arguments and discussions.  If the project is in a delivery stage, it should be run very efficiently focused on the logistics of getting things done well and quickly.

Be the drummer. Set the pace.



How do leaders best nurture a culture that values and encourages leading with speed?

I have found that if you train and encourage a number of opinion leaders throughout the organization, you will have influenced a few that will transform the whole.  The key is to train, coach, and mentor these talents to truly understand and practice the nine ingredients for mastering exceptional leadership.

I have a program for engineers that does exactly that.  The Exceptional Engineer SM Experience is a training that transforms good engineers into speed masters.  It is a delight to run this program. I see not just the improvements in individuals, but also the improvements they drive in their organizations.



When a leader has created other leaders within their organization that have mastered these skills, they have created a culture that owns the accelerator.  Buckle up, they are about to go fast!



Photo Credit: Braden Collum




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