Speed and Flexibility: Critical Elements in a Changing Economy

We’ve been talking about speed for a long time – more than a decade – and its impact on change and business. We’ve talked about:

  • Speed to market,
  • Speed of communications, and
  • Transaction speed.

We’ve seen the elimination of time and distance as barriers in many businesses. Air fare followed some logic of distance. Long distance service depended on time and distance for its pricing. Professional services were almost exclusively provided by face-to-face suppliers. These were all areas where time and distance provided some form of business barrier. Now, these are all gone. Air fares are based on load factors. Access determines phone pricing. Professional services are routinely provided from the other side of the globe.

The elimination of time and distance makes speed a critical competitive factor. Technology makes it faster to perform many functions, and a more transparent marketplace causes opportunities to appear and disappear faster than ever.

Up until now, many of us have been able to give lip service to speed and its implications. Our routines and planning cycles provided the comfort that we were paying attention to critical factors and systematically including them in our business decisions. Scale and specialized expertise provided competitive barriers. Talent pools were relatively tight and forecast to become even tighter, making our personal positions more secure. Speed was an interesting concept, but not something we needed to act upon because it was usually someone else’s issue, or if it became our issue, we could always find someone slower than us to make us feel more comfortable!

Times have changed. New markets demand speed and flexibility as the price of admission. The Internet and millions of entrepreneurs are smashing most of the barriers that scale and expertise created in the past. It’s no longer enough to be big or possess some special expertise. Technology allows the smallest of organizations to look big and for even specialized information to flow freely around cyberspace.

The Harvard Business Review devoted a large part of its January-February 2010 issue discussion ways to removing speed breaks on change. The article outlines six speed brakes and provides solutions to help transformations move faster. Adam Hartung dedicates his career to helping companies and individuals deal with discontinuous change. In blogging about the new decade, he discusses how change is accelerating and how the old formulas just don’t work. We all must be ready to move more quickly and flexibly – both within our companies and as individuals.

One of the important shifts in the past two years is the change in the labor pool. It is wider, deeper, and more mobile than expected just a few years ago, loosening and changing the makeup of the available talent. We lost almost seven million jobs, people are working later in life, and expertise no longer needs to be physically close to the place where it’s needed. These factors force all of us to consider how speed affects our individual situations.

These issues of speed and flexibility hit me in the face as I took over Vallon. We are a company that promises to provide high-octane talent for difficult situations within 48 hours. It was a bit unbelievable to me: Good fits created in under a week, even in demanding circumstances. My initial experience with the company made me a believer, as we delivered time and time again. Still, it’s a real challenge to break the mindset of most businesspeople that it takes somewhere between 60 days and six months to fill normal vacancies. It’s a huge change!

The change has huge implications for organizations. It makes companies much less vulnerable to unexpected talent losses and much more flexible in the ability to staff to whatever talent needs the market demands. The new model makes it much easier to control costs and more possible to take advantage of opportunities markets may present.

It also impacts individuals. The people who embrace this change will now be able to manage their career as a portfolio of engagements, providing broader exposure and experience than any one company could ever create. The change also makes it possible to move out of bad situations quickly, without worrying about damage to one’s career. The cornerstone to all these advantages is being able to take advantage of speed and flexibility – quickly adapting to new opportunities as they arise.

A relatively small change – the time to fill a vacancy – has dramatic implications for my life, including where I’m working, what I’m doing, and how I can help other people.

What’s happening out there that will affect you? Whatever it is will certainly force you to deal with your own speed and flexibility.


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January 2010

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