Companies, like human bodies, can get fat. Both need regular, vigorous exercise. Both can hone skills, get good at tasks, and be strong, or thin, or athletic. Building your team through proper exercise, as with building your body, is key to good health. But so is the occasional emergency.
A few years ago, I hired a former French legionnaire as a personal trainer. He’s a tough-love kind of guy, but mostly just tough, pushing me to go beyond my perceived limits in almost every workout. He keeps me engaged by switching up my exercises, which in turn avoids a plateau in development.
After intense training, he insists that I rest to allow for muscle repair. He develops an integrated program that varies day to day, week to week, and month to month, providing a cadence that continuously challenges my mind and my body. Pacing, as it turns out, is more than half the battle.
As the boss, you’re like your company's trainer. You set the pace of your organization’s exercise. And good bosses instigate healthy "emergencies"—hard days, weeks, and months that push teams to their limits. They do it regularly, but not continuously, and at purposeful intervals.
Healthy emergencies are the moments when companies come together to accomplish something extraordinary—without causing people or processes to break down. Unhealthy emergencies, on the other hand, like customer blowups, inflict more stress than growth. But the healthy ones challenge and inspire employees. Without those moments, companies atrophy. With them, our organizational muscles endure the kinds of tension and pressure that help them grow.
This October, my management team identified a weakness in our sales process. We saw that trials of our content platform were taking too much effort to run. At the same time, we hypothesized that more trials would mean more opportunities. But with the effort required to set each one up, it couldn’t possibly have scaled.
So we set up an emergency: a really tough goal with an impossible timeline. We challenged the entire company to quadruple our volume of customer trials over the course of the quarter, an outwardly unachievable task. We knew we’d break some processes, upset some comfortable teams, and uncover the true nature of our problem. Failure, while undesirable, was acceptable, because it was all about what we’d learn.
And wow, did we learn. We discovered that customers barely cared about the trials in the first place! In fact, by interviewing customers who didn’t engage with the trial but bought our software anyway, we learned that the trials were often merely a way to confirm that the product was real. These new insights, generated only because we pushed through a healthy emergency, have quickly changed our thinking on our go-to-market strategy.
This impossible challenge created eddies all over the business, forcing us to question long-standing assumptions about our customers, our product positioning, and our sales process. But it allowed us to create new "muscle fibers" in countless parts of our business. It was stressful but productive.
Here are four criteria for healthy emergencies:
- They need to be clearly understood by everyone on the team, both in law and in spirit.
- They should empower individuals to make decisions on their own.
- They should be designed to encourage cross-functional collaboration, which builds relationships within they company.
- They should always focus on a customer result.
In turn, people rise to the occasion. They feel the urgency and have a sense of how they can contribute.
These moments can bring out the best in individuals and in teams—a tricky balance managers are always trying to strike—drawing more out of each. After all, nobody wants to disappoint their trainer.
Apple is known for its "death marches," a phenomenon I experienced firsthand when I worked there. Every few months, teams around the company were subjected to extreme pressure to produce a new product or conduct a huge event.
The pace was grinding, keeping some teams at work all night to make nearly impossible deadlines. I saw wonderfully talented people leave the company burned out, and that’s when the exercise becomes dangerous rather than productive.
On the other hand, if you’ve ever felt like your team was trundling along, achieving its goals but not new heights, then you’ve experienced the quiet distress of being under-paced. I say "quiet," because people rarely speak up about it.
Yet organizational atrophy is real. For every person who gets burned out at an over-paced company, there’s another who gets bored at one that’s isn't moving fast enough. Every business has a different "just right," but it takes deliberate testing to find it.
Good employees respond well to tough challenges, and well-designed exercise helps keep your team growing consistently where it most needs to grow. Know the limits of your athletes, and design a fitness plan that pushes them to extend those limits, allowing time for celebration and rest.
Be deliberate in targeting areas that need to grow, and let them surprise you with their resilience. It’s amazing what well-directed, motivated teams can achieve. If you do it right, your team’s productivity will soar, and your business will learn what it needs to push forward—which it may never have found out otherwise.