Seven insights deconstructing the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra
This is the first of a two-part blog focusing on ‘move fast and break things’ and disruptive change. The second blog will explore the ‘six ways to achieve disruptive change without the chaos’.
If you are looking for an insightful roadmap to effect disruptive change, the five words ‘move fast and break things’ are probably not it. The term is so cryptic and open to interpretation, that its real-world application could mean anything to anyone. However, for the sake of argument, lets read two working assumptions into that mantra. Firstly, ‘moving fast’ is a euphemism for urgency and ensuring that no time can be allowed for second guessing decisions once they are made. Secondly, ‘break things’ is about dispassionate and decisive action. Once it’s done, it’s done. There is no going back.
Now that we have created a working assumption, let’s test the theory and explore the practical challenges and opportunities associated with its application. Set out below, are seven insights deconstructing the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra.
1. Speed, control, acceleration and brakes
There is no doubt that moving fast is essential to effect change. When organisations over-deliberate, this can cause inertia and even paralysis. Unnecessary delay can also be costly in terms of employee, investor and customer confidence. To say nothing of the risk of losing a competitive advantage to organisations willing to exploit a perceived hesitancy. However, speed without control is like an accelerator without brakes — dangerous to you and others alike. By contrast, when the ability to exert restraint complements the capacity for rapid movement, it offers an organisation an invaluable blend of agility and deftness.
2. Move as fast as you like, but as slow as you can
There is no homogenous definition of ‘pace’. With change, each situation is unique, and it is this uniqueness that determines the steps necessary to deliver the desired outcome. As a case in point, a burning platform that is fully engulfed in flames requires a different response to one where the fire is confined to one part of the structure. There is also a wider point here about ‘pace’ and the engagement of employees in the change process. Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect employees to be equally engaged. However, on a spectrum from ‘high’ to ‘moderate’, organisations need to decide how much variability in the ‘pace’ of engagement, is acceptable. Too much variability undermines legitimacy.
3. Break things, but not everything
The ‘break things’ mantra is both figurative and actual. It is grounded in the notion that the most effective way to promote innovation is to challenge orthodoxy. It implies that tradition is the enemy of change and must be broken beyond repair for an organisation to survive. The basic premise here makes sense. However, the challenge for every organisation is the application of this logic. Wantonly clattering into things or randomly throwing whatever is available up in the air, to see where it lands, is clearly madness. Organisations must be mindful that debris can sometimes hide sharp and dangerous shards, which can result in unintended harm.
4. Don’t break all the crockery — you will need something to eat off
The concept of a survival bag is based on the notion that if you had to depart your home in an absolute emergency, there would be a small number of critical items that you would take with you. These items, whilst not affording you many comforts, will ensure your survival. The same principle is applicable to the concept of ‘break things’. In an environment of disruptive change, the working theory is that everything can be broken, but conventional wisdom is that not everything should. Therefore, whilst moving fast, an organisation needs to discern what needs to be packaged in boxes and what needs to be thrown in the bin.
5. Who is doing the breaking?
Let’s add further context to the act of ‘breaking’. For the sake of argument, imagine that you need to remove and replace an old wiring installation in your home. To perform the function, I am guessing that you would procure the services of a suitably qualified electrical engineer. The point being made here is that when organisations are ‘breaking things’ they need to ensure that those empowered to do the ‘breaking’ know what they are doing. Again, disruptive change is not a euphemism for reckless conduct. Nor is it a refuge for organisations looking to unburden themselves of accountability on the presumption that, the end will always justify the means.
6. Accidents happen — now what?
There is a lesson here for every organisation engaged in disruptive change, which is: what happens if your actions produce unintended consequences? It is often unappreciated that the subtext to ‘move fast and break things’ is the absence of a ‘plan b’. Afterall, why would you need a fallback position if what has been broken cannot be fixed? This is where organisations need to give careful and thoughtful consideration to how disruptive, they really want to be. But doesn’t that defeat the objective? Well, let’s put it this way, there is a world of difference between disruptive change and organisational self-harm. Choose wisely.
7. Break what you own, but own what you break
For individuals, the act of breaking things can be incredibly satisfying, even cathartic. For organisations, it can be a similarly liberating experience. As longstanding and inhibiting practices are uprooted and cast aside, better ones can replace them. However, once destruction has been wrought, what happens next? Who cleans up the mess and who bares the cost? The assumption is that cast asides and casualties represent organisational detritus, but that is far from true. Often, disruptive change can result in the loss of years’ worth of organisational memory and experience. It can also place significant additional pressures on the residual workforce. With disruptive change, you need to know what you want, but you had better be careful what you ask for.
The ‘move fast and break things’ mantra is the adult’s version of a dot-to-dot cartoon. There is enough information within it to provide a broad outline context, but not enough, even when the dots are connected, to determine what it should look like at the end. Using the definition and parameters set out in this blog, disruptive change must be accompanied by the appropriate level of urgency as well as decisive action. We can all agree on that. However, between those points of reference there are expansive shades of grey. It is across this blurry terrain that each organisation needs to decide what works best for them.