Large companies have many advantages over smaller newcomers: lots of resources, plenty of capital and longstanding customer relationships. Also, big companies, with their more experienced personnel and more complex procedures, tend to make fewer mistakes. But that isn't actually an advantage. In fact, for a new company, a willingness to make mistakes is a strength that management should seek to leverage.
Why? Because mistakes are what happen when you're moving fast. Or, to put it another way, if you want to minimize mistakes, you will also have to slow down. If you're too consumed with preventing mistakes, you'll sacrifice speed. In today's competitive landscape, this is not an acceptable tradeoff for a young company, for which speed is one of the few natural advantages over larger, more powerful incumbents.
As you grow, you'll naturally and inevitably lose some of your speed, but you can minimize the loss by understanding why it's happening. Yes, it's fear of lawsuits, and the greater number of stakeholders in a larger organization. But the primary reason companies lose velocity as they grow is because the team grows too fearful of mistakes.
For example, do you find yourself rewarding the employee who delivers a presentation that's perfectly formatted and typo-free? Or the employee who delivers the bare-bones presentation, but has communicated all the right answers, delivered in half the time? Who gets promoted in your company? Is it the person who drives hard, takes calculated risks, and occasionally screws up? Or is it the one who keeps his head down, plays by the rules and takes no chances?
In many companies, the cautious, error-free employee wins every time while the aggressive ones completing the same amount of work in half the time, albeit with a few more minor mistakes, get lost in the shuffle.
As leaders, maximum throughput, not perfection, is what we should be solving for. At Box, we want our teams to deliver as much progress as possible per unit time on business-critical priorities. Mistakes are a cost, but speed is a benefit. It's critical to understand that at some point in your efforts to minimize mistakes, you're going to lose out on maximizing workplace productivity and efficiency.
So how do we make sure we're making the right tradeoff? How do we teach our team to drive hard, and to accept the occasional mistake in the service of increased speed?
When I sit down with recent hires, I try to help them escape the mindset they carried with them from whatever big company they came from, and into the mindset of a Boxer. After all, at a younger company just beginning to grow and scale, they are better off making fifty decisions and five mistakes a day than make ten decision and being right every time. I tell them that as long as they make the best call they can with the data available at the time (and with the best interests of the company at heart) they won't get in trouble for being wrong. But the talk is not enough: it's also critical that they see me making, owning and learning from mistakes. People don't do what you tell them, they do what you do.
Here are four key guidelines we follow at my company:
- Tell everyone upfront that mistakes will not only be accepted, but are in fact critical in the interest of speed, so long as the mistakes are made in good faith, not repeated and promptly fixed.
- Reinforce the message by announcing a couple of your own mistakes -- at least to your own team -- and celebrating their rapid repair.
- Don't send conflicting messages by flogging people for honest mistakes. Fix the problem, not the blame and take the opportunity to remind the team that mistakes are valued over the price of speed.
- Promote those who get the most useful work done, not the ones who make the least mistakes.
If you run fast, you'll stumble from time to time. Convince your team that the occasional stumble is worth it and will be saluted rather than censured. You need your speed. It's one of your most critical assets.