Harnessing tension within companies

Companies and orgs can promote and thrive from tension

All companies have tension.

There are at least two axes where tension resides:

  • Long-term vs Short-term projects.
  • Doing things right vs doing things fast.

This tension exists within a company, between departments, within a department, and even between cofounders. This tension is very healthy and often propels companies to succeed greater than they would without the tension.

Let’s dive in.

Doing things right vs doing things fast

This is the classic tension that many companies, especially start-ups, think about. Every individual has a personality trait that has them fall somewhere along the axis.

Mark Zuckerberg’s famous line “move fast and break things” was Facebook’s motto for its first ten years (2004-2014). Moving fast and putting out new features is why Facebook was so successful. But in 2014, Facebook decided to move on the axis from “doing things fast” to “doing things right” and Zuckerberg changed the motto to the less-catchy “Move Fast With Stable Infra.” That change is representative of the tension that exists within companies … and also the evolvement of all companies.

Most venture-backed start-ups err on doing things fast verses doing things right. Moving fast is the main advantage of a small organization because all large organizations move rather slowly. So one of the best vectors to compete against more entrenched incumbents is speed.

In my piece “Pace, Tempo, Speed, and OODA loops” I lead off with the quote from Jeff Bezos: “Being wrong might hurt you a bit, but being slow will kill you.”

The best strategy for larger organizations is to pick a small number of really important things to do — and make sure those things are done right. A great example of “do things right” strategy is Apple … but even Apple also needs to care about speed.

Even within companies, there is a LOT of tension between doings things fast and doing things right. If you were 100% on one side or the other, the company would almost surely fail.

Cofounders themselves can have conflict. I’ve seen successful start-ups with two cofounders where one has a “fast” personality and the other has a “right” personality. I’ve seen successful start-ups where both cofounders have “fast” personalities. Curiously — I have never seen a successful start-up where both founders have a “right” personality — those have always failed. In the end, speed wins for start-ups.

Classically at start-ups, the engineering org wants to do things right and the product org wants to do things fast. That tension is really good because it forces real discussions about strategy.

But there is tension even within an engineering department. Some engineers are more hackers — they want to move really fast. Some engineers focus much more on doing things right — like preparing for scale or making things secure. Both types are really important for a company’s success and you need both types to be successful.

Long-term vs Short-term projects

One of the most read posts I’ve written is “Step Functions and One-Percent Improvements” where I wrote:

Business building happens by a series of 1% improvement. But business domination comes with step functions.

One-percent improvements is about optimizing the sales funnel, growth marketing, and almost everything you read about in business books.

Seventy-two 1% improvements results in a doubling of the output of the company.  The faster you make these 1% improvements (OODA loops), the quicker you get to the doubling.  It works, and it can work well over the long term.

One-percent improvements is about focusing on the shorter-term. And there are a ton of best practices from other companies to learn from. One of the best resources for B2B software companies is SaaStr — and that is essentially a blog about all the shorter-term things companies need to focus on.

Step functions is about focusing on the longer-term. I wrote:

Step functions are really hard and have low success rates.

Step functions have a low likelihood of success and are much harder to pull off. There is usually no playbook for a step function. There is little to copy from other companies, and you really have to innovate and get it right.

OODA loops are still super important in the step function (because you need to iterate a LOT along the way), but so is careful planning. You can’t move as fast with step functions, and they are much harder to reverse once you’re finished. This makes them a higher risk.

There is a lot of tension within companies about how much they should focus on longer-term plans and how much one should focus on shorter-term improvements. They both are extremely important.

Start-ups need to focus a bit more on creating step functions (because their base is so small) but all companies really need to balance the tension between these two very important pieces of every business.

A bit more on tension

“Tension” is often seen as an evil word and many people want to avoid tension. And some tension should be avoided or reduced dramatically — especially ones that lead to being being political. But some tension in a company is really beneficial.

All great meetings have tension — otherwise they are just updates or bonding. If you are deciding something important, there is tension.

This post is specifically about two types of tension:

  • Long-term vs Short-term projects.
  • Doing things right vs doing things fast.

Having this tension within your company, between organizations, and within organizations (and even within yourself) can beneficially. Of course, there is a point where everyone needs to commit to a strategy or course of action. But, if harnessed correctly, this tension is generally a source for good.

Leave a Reply