On Management

Dec. 21, 2004
Fast-break management.

Every business has two critical needs: a winning strategy that will achieve future competitive advantage and financial success, and the ability to execute that strategy fast enough to beat competitors to the desired markets. The strategy and supporting execution must be tightly integrated or they will not yield the desired results. The most common problem in business today is that the integration between strategy and execution is either weak or nonexistent. The next most common problem is that companies tend to be good at only one of the two. A third problem is that both the strategy and execution often are rooted in the past or the present and fail to recognize the need for change to succeed in the future. Fast-break management combines a winning strategy, the talent and execution needed to support the strategy, and the integrated transition that is so critical. The "fast break" basketball metaphor illustrates how this combination of strategy and execution, occurring at breakneck speed, not only scores points quickly, but also demoralizes the opposition. When a fast break is executed properly in business, it leaves competitors wondering what hit them. This is the way dynamic industry leaders win again and again.

  • Southwest Airlines Co. turns airplanes around on the ground much more rapidly than its competitors. Its short ground time and fast execution of between-flight tasks makes its equipment more productive and the airline more profitable -- even with much lower fares, especially on the short routes.
  • Dell Computer Corp. turns minimal inventories into mass-customized personal computers in record time, taking advantage of deflating component prices and avoiding excessive-inventory penalties. Its strategic model, based on direct sales and rapid execution, offers both price and delivery advantages over traditional supply chains that include resellers.
  • Wal-Mart Stores Inc. opens new stores and conducts smaller-scale tests much faster than competing retailers -- and then makes adjustments for optimum profitability. Its strategy is supported by an immense database that provides a knowledge-based advantage, leading to greater speed with less risk.
With fast-break management, executives create an easy-to-understand strategy, find and apply the talent needed, and then learn to execute in record time -- and score. Some points to keep in mind: Leadership is the critical first element. Only a talented team with a strong leader can craft a winning strategy and connect it with the executional excellence necessary to make it work. Speed of execution is becoming increasingly essential in business. Rapid change and shorter life cycles are normal conditions in this cyber-speed age. Rapid change favors companies that are good at employing forward-looking, fast-break strategies. Winning strategies usually embody a revolutionary way of thinking about attacking a target market. Such strategies can succeed only if there is tightly integrated, sound execution followed by rapid adjustment when unexpected developments occur. Having the right talent is critical to success in business or on a basketball court. A fast break requires a special blend of talented performers who work together in the right structure, doing things the right way. Attention to basics is fundamental to sound execution and is the foundation for a successful fast-break strategy. It is the key to instinctively making the right -- and rapid -- responses to opportunities or problems. In any business, some people will leave over time, and competitors will copy successful behaviors. The key to long-term success is to create a legacy of leadership, revolutionary strategy, and transition to excellent execution, all supported with top talent. The great teams and the great companies sustain this kind of organization to create a lasting dynasty. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is president of The Enterprise Group (www.shape-shifters.com ). He lives in Knoxville. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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