Developing a Culture of Speed — HR’s Role in Increasing Organizational Speed

CEOs are in love with speed! They are constantly ranting about the need for speed in new market entry, time-to-market, cycle-time reduction, and the resulting competitive advantage that speed can provide. Speed is so important in today’s hyper-competitive business world that if you were forced to come up with a single word that best describes the current climate, “speed” would have to appear among the top descriptors.

The business world is transforming at breakneck speed. Entire industries like print publishing, digital imaging, and entertainment are undergoing radical evolutions, displacing established leaders, and launching new ones. Even once-successful companies like MySpace are burning out just three years into their mature life, demonstrating that if you can’t keep up, you will be marginalized.

All around you new products are emerging that demonstrate the profound impact innovation can have in just a year. Mobile video has gone from a pipe dream to a reality, and smartphones just a year old lack the hardware to take full advantage; chips from Intel that are introduced in January are commodities by December. Telephones that used to be viable for years in the 1950s today are obsolete with two years. A phone capturing a premium upgrade price in January could not be sold a year later.

The increasing speed of change should not be a surprise; society has for centuries focused on accelerating nearly everything. That fact has long driven the efforts of business functions that directly touch the design, manufacture, sales, and distribution of products, but functions like HR haven’t always responded in kind.


Why You Need a Culture of Speed

If you take the “need for speed” seriously, you need to move beyond having isolated “pockets” of speed throughout the organization.  Due to the interdependency of all functions and processes, diverse organizational units need to work in unison. If IT or HR or Finance is out of phase, it can dramatically delay innovations coming from other mission-critical units. Supporting all mission-critical roles in an organization are key roles that can cause just as much damage if staffed inappropriately.  You can’t have the fastest organizational speed in your industry if a single process, silo, or function moves at a lower rate of speed, creating roadblocks and “speed bumps” for the faster moving elements of the organization.

What Is a “Speed Culture?”

The most effective solution for increasing speed across the organization is the development of “a culture of speed.” Just like any other type of corporate culture, a speed culture permeates every department and business process, including hiring, performance evaluation, finance, decision-making, communications, and rewards. In order to maintain speed in a speed culture, every new program, idea, product, process, etc. must be evaluated for its impact on speed, not just when first considered, but continuously post-adoption as well. Most organizations are full of policies and procedures that once made sense but today are nothing more than barriers to speed and productivity.

A “speed culture” is a variant of the more common “performance culture” or “innovation culture.” In a speed culture, you need to add processes, measures, incentives, and even people that have the capability of accelerating existing processes while maintaining the same or higher levels of performance and innovation. Ideally, a culture of speed is owned by the managers and employees but it is supported and developed through HR.


The Key Components of Speed

Once you accept the premise that speed is an essential characteristic in business, it is only logical to begin assessing which elements of an organization need to move significantly faster and precisely how each needs to improve. The following is a list of the key components that must be present in order to optimize speed.

  • Processes built for speed – all business processes must be continually assessed for speed. Those that fall behind must be redesigned and new processes must include the essential design components for speed.
  • Processes must be integrated interrelated processes that are dependent on each other must be either coordinated or completely integrated. This integration is necessary to ensure smooth and fast handoffs between functions and to ensure that roadblocks and barriers to speed are quickly identified and eliminated.
  • Technology is essential it is almost impossible to be global, low-cost, highly innovative, and fast without the extensive use of technology. Process and program leaders must constantly search for software and hardware that can enable fast speed and high quality.
  • Fast employees are needed – some individuals act, react, think, and learn faster than others. Leaders need to staff and train for speed because unfortunately, a single slow employee like “Homer Simpson” in a team can reduce speed faster than a Formula One disc brake.
  • Fast managers are needed not all managers and leaders are adept at making fast and accurate decisions. In addition “fast managers” understand the process of increasing speed and as a result they are familiar with the most effective tools and approaches for increasing speed in their processes and their employees.
  • You must identify barriers to speed — because even the best-designed processes (just like PCs) can slow down over time, there must be processes and tools available to managers to identify current “barriers to speed” and to find the best tools and technologies for increasing speed beyond current levels.
  • You must cut approvals – requiring excessive approvals not only hampers speed but it also frustrates innovators. Where approvals cannot be eliminated, dramatically reduce the time required for them.
  • You must measure speed — you can improve something that you don’t measure. As a result, there must be metrics for measuring the speed of each step in a process. Incidentally quality must also be measured because customers have learned to expect both speed and quality.
  • Provide benchmark numbers — there must be comparison numbers both from within and outside your firm, so that you can accurately assess and maintain your speed lead in your industry.
  • Distribute reports – ranked reports demonstrating the differentials in speed between different departments, managers, and processes must be widely distributed to spur competition and best practice sharing.

HR’s Role in Building a Culture of Speed

In most organizations there is no department or individual responsible for managing speed. However in many organizations, HR is directly or indirectly given responsibility for managing the corporate culture. So if a “culture of speed” is needed, it’s logical that HR take a leadership role. HR’s involvement is also important because the most impactful enabler of speed is people, which falls under HR’s expertise. While increasing organizational speed may be an unusual topic within the HR profession, it is a role that HR can grow into because we design many of the processes (hiring, promotion, training etc.) that directly affect the capability/capacity of the workforce. If you’re interested in accepting the role as the “manager of speed” you will not only need to encourage the implementation of the key “components of speed” listed above, but also:

  • Hire fast employees — change hiring standards to recruit only candidates with the proven capability of moving fast. The hiring and assessment process must be improved to better assess whether candidates can make fast but accurate decisions and if they learn fast and embrace change.
  • Increase hiring speed – vacancies in key positions can dramatically slow down fast-moving processes and projects. As a result, HR needs to develop faster hiring processes in order to fill high-impact vacancies fast with high-quality people.
  • Train employees to be fast – some employees are slow simply because they’ve never been trained on how to act fast. The training and development function must develop courses and materials to help employees and managers think and act faster. For example, most employees do their tasks in a linear way (i.e. one step is completed before the next step is executed). By teaching them how to take simultaneous or parallel actions, employees can do more high quality work in less time.
  • Develop fast leaders – clearly managers and leaders need to be selected based on their capability of moving fast. Once selected, there must be programs to further develop these leaders so that they can gather information more quickly, make fast decisions, and help their employees learn how to move faster.
  • Expand performance management — rather than merely focusing on weak performers, this function needs to also accurately assess speed and identify employees, managers, and people processes that reduce organizational speed.
  • Offer compensation and incentives – pay for performance and innovation must be supplemented with incentives for doing things “first.” In addition, there should be rewards for sharing “fast” approaches and tools that can be used by others to increase their speed.
  • Improve the speed of best-practice sharing by coordinating and speeding up the sharing of current best practices within the organization, HR can improve productivity and speed with only a small investment.


Who Has a Speed Culture?

It doesn’t take sophisticated measures or software to identify firms with a speed culture. Firms like Google are well known for their ability to move incredibly fast both within their industry (search) and into growth markets. Apple likes to be the first mover into new product categories and to dominates them from the start. In the game industry, firms like Zynga (Farmville) and Rovio Mobile (Angry Birds) have harnessed the capability to move fast into social media and mobile platforms to the detriment of long-time industry leaders like Electronic Arts.

Other notable “speed culture” firms include Facebook, Southwest Airlines, Amazon, Frito-Lay (PepsiCo), Samsung, Novartis, and Zappos. In addition to technology firms, entire industries including mobile devices, medicine, and green energy industries are learning to move at breakneck speed. Even firms like McDonald’s and Starbucks are learning to change rapidly.


Final Thoughts

You can’t be a hero in a “fast culture” unless you are recognized as being among the leaders in moving fast. Unfortunately, few (even within HR) would argue that HR processes are currently among “the fastest tools in the shed.” Part of our reluctance to move fast and to avoid risks is based on our traditional focus on compliance and legal issues.

The time has come for HR to shift focus away from compliance and towards directly impacting productivity, innovation, and speed. If you want to move beyond being a mere business partner and instead make a real strategic contribution to the firm, why not accept the role as the manager of your firm’s speed culture? Accepting that role means an improved status, increases resources, and a measurable business impact on the function. Don’t wait for someone to assign you to that role. Instead, seize the opportunity and of course, move fast.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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