The Quick and the Dead

Tom Peters

During the build-up to the Gulf War, I paid a visit to CNN in Atlanta. At one tense juncture, I watched Senior Executive Producer Bob Furnad direct an hour of live news. He stood in the control room, trying to make sense of madness—and pulled it all off with aplomb. Looking only at the screen, you would have thought he was following a detailed script.

Instead, dozens of TV monitors stared him in the face. Staffers raced in and out, throwing notes at him, shouting at him. Phones rang. Faxes cranked. Yet in the midst of a multi-million dollar, high-tech, global hub, Furnad worked off a homely legal pad—scribbling notes and barking orders to technicians, while engaging in a dozen simultaneous phone conversations from as many points around the globe.

Furnad’s style defines CNN. The network eschews bureaucracy and thrives on action. Decisions that take competitors hours, days, perhaps weeks, are made in minutes by a lean, feisty, constantly in touch, top team.

CNN came to mind while reading a prize-winning California Management Review article by Stanford Professor Kathleen Eisenhardt. Titled “Speed and Strategic Choice: How Managers Accelerate Decision-making,” Eisenhardt (with University of Virginia colleague Jay Bourgeois) studied decision makers at 12 microcomputer firms. The slow pokes took 12 to 18 months to do what the quick set pulled off in two to four.

Eisenhardt discovered five major distinctions between the two sorts. To begin with, the speedos swam in a deep, turbulent sea of real-time information, while the slugabeds relied on “planning and futuristic information.” The hustlers obsessively tracked operating measures such as bookings, backlog, cash, and engineering milestones, often updated daily. And they typically scheduled as many as three weekly, must-attend, top-team meetings to chew over “what’s happening,” as one executive put it. Constant email chatter and face-to-face meetings almost completely superseded the ubiquitous memos, lengthy reports, and ponderous get-togethers that marked the languorous firms.

Perversely, Eisenhardt notes, slow decision-makers consider fewer alternatives than their speedy kin! They minutely dissect each possibility, while the greased-lightening gang considers a batch of options—all at once. The bunch-at-once approach has wonderful side benefits, Eisenhardt reports. “Comparative analysis sharpens preferences,” she says. Looking at lots of choices also builds confidence and provides fallback positions, which are frequently needed in today’s crazy-quilt marketplace.

The one-at-a-timers mull and mull—and mull and mull—often until opportunity passes them by. When the much belabored option dies, they’re left with nothing, and must fire up the cumbersome process once again.

Slow deciders, Eisenhardt says, are “stymied by conflict. They … wait for consensus (and) delay in hopes that uncertainty will magically become certain.” The quicksters, by contrast, thrive on conflict, which they see as “natural, valuable, and almost always inevitable.” At some point, the senior decision-maker, certain that disagreement won’t evaporate, cuts off debate and makes the call.

Speedy chiefs rely on “an older and more experienced” mentor, Eisenhardt claims, while slow decision-makers rarely such advisors. She speculates that the counselors, often 10 to 20 years the boss’s senior, “boost the confidence of decision-makers to decide”—which is essential, she says, given that “one of the highest barriers to fast decision-making is anxiety.”

Finally, in yet another example of “all at once” behavior, the fast decision-makers thoroughly integrate strategies and tactics. They juggle budgets, schedules, and organization options simultaneously. Sluggish blokes examine strategic decisions in a vacuum, delaying grubby operational considerations until the “big choices” are made. As a result, despite their painstakingly big-picture analyses, they’re more likely to trip over details of implementation.

The five differences can be summarized with one word: immersion. Eisenhardt, citing voluminous research on chess players, explains that an immersion strategy strengthens intuition. Chess masters develop a keen sense of the board “by playing chess over and over,” she writes. Similarly, “Managers who track real-time information are actually developing their intuition (so) they can react quickly and accurately to changing events.”

Eisenhardt’s speedy decision-makers thrive on the fray itself. They are anything but detached. Which hearkens back to Bob Furnad and his wacky world. The decibel level at CNN meetings is high, with all 20 or so attendees at the crucial morning planning session seemingly talking at once. They take their work seriously (giving themselves about 30 minutes to set the day’s offerings), but laugh a lot, occasionally exchange sharp barbs—and make dozens of decisions without looking back.

Such is the culture of CNN. And yours, if you’re wise. “The carefully conducted industry analysis or broad-ranging strategic plan is no longer a guarantee of success,” Eisenhardt writes “The premium now is on moving fast and keeping pace.” Northern Telecom Vice Chairman David Vice sums it up best: “The nineties will be a … nanosecond culture. There’ll be only two kinds of managers: the quick and the dead.”

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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