Speed vs. Perfection: How to Balance Both In Fast-Growth Organizations

Chief of Staff Guides Leadership Development
Are you and your team clear about when you should be optimizing for speed and when to optimize for perfection? This clarity is critical but not often established. It's time to change that!
Speed vs. Perfection: How to Balance Both In Fast-Growth Organizations

Several of my CEO clients have been frustrated lately. Their workforce is fatigued, the tech industry is generally chaotic, and they don’t know what else they can do. 

I asked each of them the same single clarifying question that uncovered the source of this frustration: 

“Are you currently optimizing for speed or perfection?” 

Of course, their first response was that they wanted both. And the truth is that both are important but often can’t be performed simultaneously. So we need to move toward balance mindfully.

The case for speed

Generally, startups should optimize for speed. To do this, your teams need a clear understanding of the strategy for how your organization will win and how their individual contributions are tied to that result. You will do things you know won’t scale simply because you need the impact right now. You will also try out some things that won’t work out. Your teams need to understand what your acceptable “failure” rate is. (I put failure in quotes there because failure ideally leads to new insights, data, and strategy, so it’s not really a failure in the long run.)

When perfection comes calling…

Organizations that are on the other side of the startup and scale-up growth stages generally need to optimize their people and resources to deliver closer to “perfection.” You have figured out your business model and have long-term commitments to keep. This transition from speed to perfection requires clarity, consistency, and simplicity in decision-making. However, the idea of “perfection” is a misleading term because to do anything innovative, you need some room for experimentation. And you need to continue to innovate to stay relevant.

So, how do we allow room for both?

Ben Casnocha shared some helpful tips on this subject in his blog post “10,000 hours with Reid Hoffman: What I learned“. He wrote about a pivotal conversation he had when he first became Reid’s Chief of Staff: 

If you’re a manager and care seriously about speed, you’ll need to tell your people you’re willing to accept the tradeoffs. Reid did this with me. We agreed I was going to make judgment calls on a range of issues on his behalf without checking with him. He told me, ‘In order to move fast, I expect you’ll make some foot faults. I’m okay with an error rate of 10-20% — times when I would have made a different decision in a given situation – if it means you can move fast.’ I felt empowered to make decisions with this ratio in mind—and it was incredibly liberating.

I can see 3 wise lessons to extract from Ben’s anecdote:

  1. The price of speed is “mistakes.”
  2. Leaders need to be explicit with their teams about what an acceptable error rate is.
  3. Teams need to be able to differentiate between which mistakes are OK to make and what must never go wrong.

Juggling Rubber Balls and Glass Balls

In this vein, I often give an analogy to my clients about juggling. Every day we have multiple balls to juggle within our limited time. And every day, the assigned balls are each either made of rubber or glass. Rubber balls are the ones that we need to keep track of and keep in motion, but they can bounce once or twice without severe consequences. Glass balls, on the other hand, can never be dropped. They will not bounce back. 

The challenge is that, especially in startups, the same task might be a rubber ball today but a glass ball tomorrow. This is why conversations need to happen often about which is which. This will lead to an empowered workforce, unified teams, and a lighter load on leadership.