Sustaining Fast Growth – How to stop the wheels coming off

By Robert White January, 2015

By definition your strategy is right and your sales model is right – so what could possibly go wrong? Well, my experience shows that the one thing most likely to trip you up is 'execution'.

Risks generally increase with speed.

Take aeroplanes. Higher speeds induce higher stresses on the airframe and as the aeroplane flies faster the pilot load increases exponentially.

You will often hear pilots talk about "staying ahead of the plane". What they mean by this is that as the aeroplane flies along its route there are a set of routine checks, radio calls and settings that must be constantly monitored and updated. If you fall behind with these routines then the chances of having to take non routine actions to get out of trouble will increase dramatically. As your speed increases the likelihood of "staying ahead of the plane" reduces.

The aerospace industry deals with these issues brilliantly in my view. Here's why:

  1. Clarity of outcomes to be achieved and avoided
    1. The outcomes required are distilled down to the absolute minimum required for mission success. As a result complexity and associated risks and costs are reduced.
    2. Aircraft systems, capabilities and limits are clearly defined, documented and routinely refreshed.
    3. Only key performance data relevant to the mission is presented to the crew. It keeps them focused on the desired outcomes and helps early identification of unwanted trends leading to problems.
  2. Simplified Procedures
    1. Crew procedures are distilled into a series of checklists. Each item on the checklist relates directly to achieving or avoiding a specific outcome.
    2. Checklists, when used properly, facilitate thoroughness and preparedness which, in turn, reduces risks.
  3. A 'No Risk' Culture
    1. If a commercial or military pilot makes a mistake or sees a problem he or she will report it because not only does the culture allow it – it demands it.
    2. This is the fastest way to improve anything because the operational people know best where the problems are. All you have to do is give them a risk free way to communicate.

We saw all of this in action when Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River.

He knew exactly what to do and executed the emergency procedures with calm efficiency and great skill. There was only one thing that went wrong - it began to slowly sink. It shouldn't have done that. It did so because the 'Ditching Dampers' were not closed by the crew and these stop the ingress of water. The dampers weren't closed because the checklist item to perform this task was towards the bottom of the 'Ditching' checklist and the crew did not have time to work their way down to it. This won't occur again though because the checklist has now been updated to move the 'close dampers' action much higher up – it would seem that this item is mission critical to avoiding an unwanted outcome – sinking!

Now I'm not advocating the wholesale use of checklists but I think these principles carry over very well to our world. Let me summarise:

  1. Clarity of Purpose

    Uncertainty slows or defeats decision making both for your team and your customers. If your team is uncertain of the outcomes expected of them don't expect those outcomes to be achieved.

    The outcomes must be understandable and achievable. No aeroplane checklist contains the item 'Check Engines' because it's meaningless. There will be a section called 'Engines' but it will contain a range of checks including 'Temperatures, Pressures, fuel flow, fuel state etc'.

    It will contain the smallest number of items consistent with making sure that the engines continue to function.

    It is actually quite simple (takes about three days) to look at any organisation and isolate the mission critical outcomes to an appropriate level of granularity.

    Now you have a 'checklist' that allows you to ask the questions "how well do we execute, what needs to be improved?"

    You could be tempted to say "Well actually, we already have good, clear processes". This may well be the case but closely defining the minimum number of mission critical 'outcomes' will allow you to check to see if your existing processes are capable of delivering the outcomes and whether they are getting in the way of delivering the outcomes.

  2. Systems, Tools and Skills

    Test your systems, tools and skills against both wanted and unwanted outcomes and identify any gaps in terms of capability and capacity.

    If you've sized your plane to carry 200 people don't be surprised when any passengers above that number are left behind.

  3. Staying Ahead of the Growth

    As any pilot will tell you there's nothing more useless than runway behind you. If you are going to stay ahead you will need leading performance indicators.

    So, the rate at which you generate profit is a function of how well your 'engines' and 'airframe' are performing i.e. how effectively your team is delivering the required outcomes.

    There are many ways to measure the performance of 'outcomes'. In my view, the best way is to calculate the amount of profit attributable to each 'outcome' or primary group of 'outcomes' (takes about 3 – 4 weeks for most companies). Now that we have associated 'actions' with 'profit' it becomes possible to pre-emptively track profit in terms of 'Profit Delivered', 'Profit in Progress' and 'Profit at Risk'.

    'Profit at Risk' is particularly helpful:

    1. It’s an early warning system in that It identifies problem areas before profit is lost.
    2. It shows the scale of the problem in meaningful terms i.e. is it worth fixing?
    3. It allows us to narrowly focus our investments on what truly matters i.e. those things that will make, or lose, profit.

So, if you're growing fast then you've already solved the biggest problems of finding a successful product or service and knowing how to sell it.

All that remains is to keep flying safely by staying ahead of the plane!

Robert White