A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of speed to startup success. After publishing that post, people asked: "Okay, but how do you go faster?"
It's a critical question for companies of all sizes. Research by Bain & Company shows that 85% of executives say the most significant barriers to achieving growth objectives are internal, which rises to 94% in the largest companies. “Growth creates complexity and yet complexity is the number one killer of profitable growth,” writes Chris Zook, who formerly led Bain's global strategy practice.
I've seen this challenge first-hand at BenchSci. When I joined about three and a half years ago, we were a roughly 20-person company. Today, we're about 150 people, which is more than 700% growth. Maintaining speed as we scale has been a challenge and, to be honest, not something we've always gotten right.
But we've learned and are continuing to learn. To answer the above question, and based on our experience, here are seven imperatives that we see as essential to maintaining speed, along with some specific approaches and tactics that we implement.
“Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery—it's the sincerest form of learning.”
—George Bernard Shaw
Imitation has a bad reputation. In the startup world, in particular, there's a tendency to fetishize novelty. Yet trying to do everything from scratch, as if nobody's done it before, is delusional and slow. No matter how novel your offering, you can learn a lot from those who came before. That's why we always seek to imitate before we innovate.
"Learn from others," says Matan Berson, Head of User Experience at BenchSci. "We don’t need to reinvent the wheel for everything. I know many of us speak to people in other companies who might have faced similar issues. By speaking to them, you can learn from their experiences, avoid mistakes, and move faster towards achieving your goal."
Some of the things we do at BenchSci to foster imitation include:
- Recruiting experienced people with deep knowledge to learn from
- Leveraging our board and creating and learning from our expert advisory board
- Encouraging learning from and sharing knowledge with counterparts in other startups
- Facilitating regular show-and-tells and lunch-and-learns for internal knowledge sharing
- Establishing a mentorship program to diffuse expertise throughout the organization
"In teamwork, silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly."
When you seek to imitate speedy practices, you'll find one fact repeated consistently: The fastest-growing companies in the world prioritize communication.
It all starts with culture, as fast-growing outliers obsess about values, culture, and alignment. "These organizations invest seriously in corporate values, which their leaders back up through meaningful symbolic actions," writes Rita Gunther McGrath, who summarized her research findings on growth outliers in Harvard Business Review.
Key things to communicate include the need to grow and maintain momentum, the need for progress and not just movement, and the need to be good and fast versus perfect and slow.
It's also vital to make structural changes that improve information flow, such as moving to a flatter, less hierarchical organization. “A speedy organization has more people taking action and fewer people feeding the beast of bureaucracy—briefing each other, reporting, seeking approvals, sitting in unproductive meetings,” reports a McKinsey brief on organizational speed in the post-COVID 19 era.
Finally, customer communication is critical. Growth can stall when a company becomes too distant from its customers and stops building the things they value most.
Here's what we do at BenchSci to improve communication:
- Invest heavily in culture promotion (see, for example, our culture deck and why we're writing this blog series)
- Present quarterly retrospectives to the company on the prior quarter's performance
- Hold monthly all-hands meetings to communicate significant developments from the prior month, and other important information
- Hold biweekly town halls complete with ask-me-anything questions to anyone in the company
- Circulate a monthly update complete with transparent reporting on our financials
- Send a weekly company newsletter with updates from the prior week
- Post important information in our internal knowledgebase, Guru, so ideally nobody has to answer the same question twice, and people can get answers to most questions instantly
- Continuously gather quantitative and qualitative feedback from end-users, as well as from industry executives who are part of our advisory board
"The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency."
With imitation and communication well-established, some companies seeking speed move immediately to automation. As Bill Gates notes above, the problem with this is that you may automate processes that you would be better off eliminating. That's why, before you automate, you must eliminate.
Start with an 80/20 analysis to find the small number (usually around 20%) of things that deliver the biggest (usually around 80%) impact. For example, determine the 20% of customers that contribute 80% of revenue and the 20% of product features responsible for 80% of product utilization. Then focus your resources on these few things.
Doing so will require you to make tough decisions, such as killing products and restructuring departments. It will also require you to continuously ensure alignment between company activity and your goals and vision.
"Ruthless prioritization is also key, and frequently checking that our work is still aligned to our objectives," says Lindsay Murphy, Director of Business Intelligence and Analytics at BenchSci. "We plan quarters, but things change quickly, so the faster we can course-correct if something in plan is no longer a good priority, the faster we can reallocate resources to the appropriate places."
And don't stop at the big things. Use an 80/20 analysis throughout your organization. For example, eliminate unnecessary meetings, events, and travel. Scrutinize how your organization spends its time to the same degree as how it spends its money.
Finally, watch out for unnecessary bloat, complexity, and bureaucracy. Increasing investment and revenue is like fertilizer to a garden. Fertilizer encourages the growth of both flowers and weeds. Revenue and investment can similarly encourage hiring great talent and doing more important work, but also bureaucracy and unnecessary complexity. Fight back. "Find simple ways to do things, and simple solutions," says Liran Belenzon, BenchSci's CEO.
Accordingly, some of the things we do at BenchSci are:
- Regularly prune OKRs to eliminate unnecessary activity
- Hold "scrap time" across the company to eliminate unnecessary processes, meetings, and anything else that's outlived its usefulness
- Encourage people throughout the company to call bullshit on unnecessary complexity and bureaucracy
"Never automate something that can be eliminated, and never delegate something that can be automated or streamlined. Otherwise, you waste someone else's time instead of your own…"
Once you've eliminated the unnecessary, you can focus on automating anything automatable in what remains.
There are broadly two ways to do so: tools and processes. Where possible, look at the ever-growing list of tools available to perform work that previously required humans. Where these tools don't yet exist, try to create them. If this isn't yet possible, codify best-practices and processes to simplify and ensure the quality of repeated work.
At BenchSci, we automate our business in multiple areas, including through:
- Monday.com for project management and workflow automation
- Guru to ensure up-to-date and reliable information is available for recurring questions, and also as a storehouse for standard operating procedures
- Grammarly for consistent communication, including enforcement of a custom company-wide style guide
- HubSpot for marketing automation
- Zapier for custom automation, including stitching together our various apps, such as Monday.com, Slack, and Google Workspace
"If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself. If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate."
—John C. Maxwell
Once you've automated what you can't eliminate, the next most important step is to delegate properly. Within organizations, what's most critical with delegation is encouraging an owner's mindset and pushing decisions to the front line. The purpose isn't to shirk responsibility but to accelerate and improve judgment and responsiveness.
Encouraging an owner's mindset reduces the amount of oversight and bureaucracy necessary to prevent actions misaligned with a company's best interests. Perhaps the best example of this is Netflix, with its culture of freedom and responsibility. Rather than having an ever-growing morass of processes, such as defining what expenses are acceptable, Netflix has simple principles. "We trust our teams to do what they think is best for Netflix," reads the company's culture memo, "giving them lots of freedom, power, and information in support of their decisions." If you think like an owner, you'll make the right decisions.
Similarly, pushing decisions to the front line improves responsiveness and ensures people with the best knowledge of a problem are empowered to solve it. For example, customer-oriented teams that are deeply familiar with specific accounts should be the ones deciding how to grow and service those accounts—not some central bureaucratic body within an organization that lacks sufficient context.
At BenchSci, autonomy is core to our culture. We strive to unleash agile, empowered teams that work together cross-functionally towards common goals. We believe that if you give people clear objectives with measurable results, they will be both more successful and happier to accomplish them with a maximum amount of autonomy.
"Without strategy, execution is aimless. Without execution, strategy is useless.”
It may seem obvious, but one critical factor to staying fast at scale is excellent execution. As more people join a company, speed of execution can suffer for reasons such as analysis paralysis, excessive debate, cumbersome review processes, and perfectionism.
The first step is to focus on outputs over inputs. Organizations that obsess over and reward inputs alone—like celebrating hard work more than impactful results—risk disincentivizing speed and creativity. What should matter most are outcomes.
McKinsey's summary of organizational speed during COVID-19 captures some of the critical elements of fostering an outcome-oriented organization:
- Ensure everyone is clear on what needs to be done by whom, when, and why
- Track outcomes and milestones, and reward employees for achieving goals
- Create programs, realign incentives, and direct rewards to people and teams that execute with speed and excellence
Also, it's critical to avoid perfectionism. Instead of slow and perfect, aim for fast and good. Avoiding perfectionism is particularly important in a hypergrowth company because what's ideal today probably won't be in a few months. For example, you could create a perfect, high-touch employee onboarding program that includes a meeting with the CEO and works well when adding one person a week, but terribly when adding 10.
At BenchSci, we strive to apply the elements of excellent execution throughout the organization. For example, we use OKRs to ensure that everyone in the company is clear on our direction and desired results. We also encourage a test-and-learn approach to solving problems rather than thinking we're smart enough to know for sure what will work before we launch it.
"In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists."
Another advantage of focusing on outputs over inputs is that it encourages innovation. If you celebrate impact and creativity more than just hard work, it sends the message that the organization values working smarter over just working harder.
Other ways to encourage innovation include prioritizing continuous improvement and experimentation, embracing change, and encouraging learning. Research on growth outliers confirms that they:
- Experiment more, including new technologies, new markets, and new business models.
- Test, learn from, and scale more small investments. They pursue a continuous stream of small initiatives and kill or increase investment in those with the best results.
- Prioritize adaptability over efficiency. Rather than pursue an unchanging annual plan, they adjust plans and resources quarterly.
- Integrate innovation throughout the organization. They encourage it through recruitment, internal communication, and incentives, including promotions.
At BenchSci, we strive to be adaptable, encourage innovation, and facilitate continuous learning and development. We adjust our annual plan and OKRs quarterly to account for internal and external changes. We continuously solicit ideas and run regular experiments to improve our market performance and organizational effectiveness. And we provide everyone in the company with access to leadership training and an educational budget for self-directed learning and development.
None of this is to say we can't improve, nor that we won't encounter new problems for which I haven't mentioned solutions as we continue to grow. But these seven imperatives—imitate, communicate, eliminate, automate, delegate, execute, innovate—are a good starting point for any organization like us that aims to get faster rather than slower with scale.