Every water molecule in a river behaves according to the same basic rule: Obey gravity, taking the path of least resistance, towards the sea.
All the water in a river is moving, but not moving identically:
- The fastest flow is in the “middle” or the center of the primary channel.
- The slowest forward flow is along the edges, because of the drag of the bottom and shoreline.
- Hydrology measurements demonstrate that at any point in time about 20% of the water is moving backward. (Think about eddies and water bouncing backward against rocks, logs, etc.)
Consider the parallels to organization dynamics. Even where there is an aligned purpose (“We’re all going to the sea!”) there are variations in flow that have nothing to do with the character of the water. The flow rate is a function of friction from the environment.
Some individuals are wired for moving fast. Even the “fast” members of your team will occasionally be pulled into an eddy, or bounce again rocks and trees. Be mindful of the external situation before you make summary judgments about individual performance.
What’s true for individuals is also true for sub-parts of organizations: You can move faster where there is less friction. There are fewer legacy processes and systems. There much less “what got us here won’t get us there” to overcome. There is more intrinsic trust and experienced teams who have more confidence.
It’s not surprising that startup businesses can be nimble and move fast. There’s relatively little internal friction for them to overcome.
Aside from the smooth speed of the central channel of a river, much of what makes a river fascinating and distinctive is the interaction with the rocks, trees, and shoreline. You have dramatic whitewater, falls, swirling water, calmer pools where moss and insects and fish abound. We know “still waters run deep” yet almost always prefer dramatic rush and spray.
Organizations are mostly valuable for interactions with suppliers, customers, partners, and employees. There are absolutely places where your leadership is needed to streamline and accelerate processes by removing friction elements. Don’t miss some of the “friction” to perfect speed is your real business model at work.
- Work on unifying narratives so that everyone in your organization “moves” in a consistent direction.
- Appreciate that internal history and external factors create friction, so that not all parts of your organization are moving at the same speed.
- Decide carefully what friction elements need to be streamlined, and which are valuable parts of your business model.