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Fast Times: What Business Can Learn from the Indy 500

By May 29, 2011January 2nd, 2016No Comments

bolide on high-speed road

In celebration of the 100th Indy 500 race, I’m recycling this article I wrote in 2009. Acceleration. It’s the difference between a 4-cylinder Civic and a V-8 Jag. Both can cruise at highway speeds, but only one can gain more speed while it’s already moving fast. In the business world, the desire to move faster often causes management to exercise more central control. One foot on the gas, one set of hands on the wheel, one eye on the road, and one on the rear view mirror. It’s a one-person show – too risky to share.

Yet think of how high-performing racing teams create speed by collaboration. The precise tuning of the chassis, the engine, the tires; the intense communication between the driver and the crew Chief; the orchestrated efforts of the pit crew. These teams prove that acceleration and collaboration go hand-in-hand.

Accelerating collaborative teamwork is a core promise of whale hunting. When a company is trying to cross No Man’s Land increased speed is essential. Yet increased collaboration is equally important. Whenever a boat brings a whale to the beach, the village needs to increase its speed of work immediately. Excuses, rationales, reasons – they pale against the reality of a ready whale on the beach for harvest.

But one of the hardest problems our clients face is to accelerate their processes, especially when they are trying to involve many people. Everyone buys the promise of moving faster. Almost everyone wants to accelerate their learning and implementation of promising new processes that will increase their sales, delivery, revenue, and profits. And they tout the benefits of collaboration – buy-in from the team, preparing the next generation of managers, knowledge sharing, and building best practices.

Yet the burden of the every day routinely sabotages the acceleration plan. We get mired in “how we do things.” Meetings, checks and balances, approvals, reports, circulation of every plan to everyone. Collaboration seems too clunky, too hard, too slow. So a few people take over, and others step back. When that happens, the village is not ready for whales.

If you want to energize your progress through speed and collaborative decision-making, you need to streamline your collaboration tactics. Here are 10 practices to move forward fast:

  1. Define the purpose. The only reason to collaborate across departmental or divisional lines is to increase the likelihood of good decision-making. Collaboration isn’t about keeping everyone informed about everything. It’s about getting the right information to the right people at the right time so that the organization makes decisive judgments based on collective knowledge.
  2. Keep moving. Set the schedule of meetings, events, and deliverables upfront. The desire for a face-to-face meeting represents the biggest procrastination excuse for a collaborative team. Is there ever a time when all members of a 12- or 20-member cross-functional team can promise to be present? Very likely NOT! Keep to the schedule regardless of who cannot attend. Send someone in your place. Bring one another up to speed. But don’t slow the process.
  3. Use an online communication space. Share ideas, working papers, comments, drafts, and concerns in an online discussion: a web-based or server-based solution, a simple email bulletin board, or an internal service. Many useful technologies are available to support information-sharing among people who have difficulty being in the same place at the same time.
  4. Be here now. When you are with your team, recognize what a precious time that is. Be there totally with your full attention (no email, cell phones, multi-tasking). Show up on time. Be prepared.
  5. Meet only to DO work. Meetings are not for reporting, presenting, or sharing. They are ONLY for reaching decisions based upon previously shared materials. Circulate reports ahead of time. Share ideas in a chat room; brainstorm via email. Assign someone to organize the findings. Then come together to act on what you’ve learned.
  6. Focus on the future. Shared understanding of the past is both impossible and irrelevant. How many meetings digress to a rehearsal of past attempts, failures, and shortcomings? A fast collaborative team is driven by a powerful shared vision of how good things are going to be when we get this next bit of work completed. Don’t short-change the future by re-hashing the past.
  7. Build and test models. Models are representations of “the real thing.” They have the characteristics of the system you are trying to build on a smaller, cheaper scale. Simulations, games, process charts, 3-D versions, analogies, drawings – all of these models allow you to test ideas, processes, and practices before you implement.
  8. Communicate frugally. Send information promptly to key teams whose work is affected by your progress. Focus on the commitments (who agreed to do what, in what timeframe) and the action items (what needs to happen next). Don’t glut the system with extensive minutes and meeting notes that no one will read. Just the lack of time to produce minutes is a detractor to acceleration.
  9. Embrace progress, not perfection. Think again of that racing team. They measure progress in a quarter-turn of the wrench, a .10 increase in speed, a one-step quicker tire change. Everything that they deal with is variable; they are in a constant flux to get the most speed out of their driver and their equipment under a given set of conditions, most of which are beyond their control (heat, rain, inspection lines) and changing by the day, hour, and minute. Take one step ahead today; take another step ahead next week. You don’t need to do it all at once.
  10. There is no They. We have sat through countless painful, unproductive meetings in which every proposed action was impeded by the phrase, “They’ll never approve that.” Or, “We can try it, but they’ll shoot it down.” “They” may be managers, employees, other departments, customers, board members – you name it. “They” are in charge. And because “they” are in charge, “we” let ourselves off the hook of decisiveness. What could your committee / task force / team / leadership group accomplish if you simply assumed that “they” are “you”?

P.S.  Hoping to see Danica Patrick finish in Top 10 from her latter row start!