Fast Company

Change Agent - Issue 52

What does it mean to be fast? Our columnist empties his mail bag -- and posts the answers.

Here at Fast Company, our columnists receive a great deal of mail, most of which we ignire. (Except for real letters on real paper, preferably sent with cash enclosed.) Every once in a while , however, we clean out the mail and publish the most interesting notes. Here they are.

Dear Seth: So what about hummingbirds?
-- Elly Markson, Toronto, Ontario

Dear Elly: Great question. Hummingbirds can flap their wings up to 80 times per second. Last week, I watched one eat from a hummingbird feeder. Rather than just sitting down for one second and enjoying itself, it was in constant motion, flitting hither and yon, and probably burning more calories than it was consuming.

Dear Seth: "Hither and yon"?
-- Elly Markson, Toronto, Ontario

Dear Elly: To and fro, same thing. Perhaps it's worth taking a second out of our frantic, frenzied, 80-flaps-per-second lives to focus on the moment. Rushing around isn't always the best strategy; sometimes it's nothing but a way to avoid making the hard decisions. The hummingbird looked nervous to me - too nervous to leverage the food in front of it. I wonder if the same thing is happening to us. Are we in the process of becoming victims of the economy that we have created?

Dear Seth: Oh.
-- Elly Markson, Toronto, Ontario

Dear Mr. Godin: I agree. There's way too much emphasis on speed. At my company, we deliberate over every decision, study it, test it, have committee meetings - you get the idea.
-- Jane Dishell, Farmland, Ohio

Um, Jane: I'm not sure that paralysis is the solution. While flitting is a waste, hiding is worse. It seems that sooner or later, business is about fear: the fear of being wrong, or having to fire people, or missing the window for an IPO. Most organizations that spend all their time studying things are hiding from something they're afraid of. What are you afraid of?

Dear Seth: My company is filled with people (all of whom seem to be above me on the corporate ladder) who refuse to let us try anything new. Everyone at my level knows exactly what to do to save the company, but no one above us will let us. What should we do?
-- Ethel Binder, Williamsville, New York

Dear Ethel: What you're looking for is an insurance policy that will protect you against retribution if your plan goes awry. What you're waiting for is someone way up the ladder to tell you that you can launch a product or institute a cost-savings plan. You want their approval to free you from risk. That's not going to happen.

Just do it. If you wait for approval, it means that you want someone to cover your backside if you fail. The people higher up on the corporate ladder are well aware of the risk that comes with trusting you and your bellyaching associates. If you and your colleagues screw up after receiving their approval, then it will be your bosses who get into the deepest hot water, not you.

Dear Seth: I'm looking for a new job, one at a company that's fast. Do you have any suggestions?
-- Steve Engel, Hollywood, California

Dear Steve: Alas, there are no fast companies. There are fast bosses though. Fast bosses are the managers who will push you to do things that you're scared of. They'll hold you to a high standard and cover for you when a mistake (a well-done mistake, but a mistake nonetheless) inevitably happens.

Some companies are perceived as fast because the CEO is fast. But sooner or later, most CEOs get slow. And when they do, the company starts to get slow. The dotcoms as a group were mistakenly pinned with the "fast" label, but that's nonsense. The vast majority were slow, slow, slow. They were funded by slow investors ("Just like Amazon, but we'll sell magazines!" or "Just like eBay, but we'll auction off boats!"), and they were staffed with slow employees. Don't look for a fast company; look for a fast boss. If your boss isn't fast, find a new boss.

Dear Wise Guy: Now that the Nasdaq is in the basement where it belongs, all this change-the-world-fast stuff is exposed as the fraud it always was. Real businesses make real profits, and real managers know that if it isn't broken, you shouldn't fix it. Right?
-- Chuck Darwin, Oxford, England

Dear Chuck: Fast has never been about going public or about the Internet or about high technology. Those are just some of the places where a fast attitude is the most visible. Here's the paradox: Today, the safest path is the least safe. The most stable companies are the most erratic. The slowest companies are in the most danger of unforeseen disaster.

As you well know, stable systems don't stay stable for very long, Chuck. If there's a profit to be made, someone hungrier or braver than you will be willing to disrupt your marketplace, challenge your business, and woo your customers away. Now that it's easier than ever to spread a new business model or make a market more transparent, it's naive to believe that an entrepreneur is going to hesitate for one second before making your life miserable.

People all over the business world are griping about the unfairness of today's market turmoil: how years of study and hard work have been ruined because of the disruptions unleashed by fast companies and a fast economy. Hey, there's not a lot we can do about it. Instability and chaos are the natural order of things moving forward, and the sooner we embrace that, the sooner we can start riding the waves instead of being swamped by them.

Dear Seth: I can't get any faster. I work all the time. I have sore thumbs from using my BlackBerry so much. I'm burnt out.
-- Mario Andretti, Somewhere in Indiana

Mario: When I say "fast," I mean the new fast, the fast that takes bravery - the quick test, the quick launch, the quick failure. I mean the fast that prefers a quick death to a long, slow one. The fast that looks for shortcuts to knowing, that values insight, and that doesn't mind upsetting the status quo.

Dear Seth: Who's fast now?
-- Alan Webber, Fast Company, Boston, Massachusetts

Alan! Haven't you been paying attention? Sheesh. Everyone is fast now. Everyone who is reading this magazine has had their moments of speed. They've experienced the fear in the pit of their stomachs as they tried something that was untested, as they took a risk that the boss hadn't approved of in writing.

The only difference between the truly fast and the occasionally fast is the power of addiction. Once you get in the habit of being fast, you learn that it's not the end of the game. Fast behavior at work rarely gets you into any serious trouble - and when it does, you'll survive. You will find another gig, and odds are, it will be one that lets you go faster still. Who's fast? We all are.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is the author of Unleashing the Ideavirus (Hyperion, 2001), which just came out last month in paperback. Find out more about this and other fast topics on the Web (www.ideavirus.com).

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