A straight line is not always the best route Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2010

As smart as most seasoned executives think they are, many have prematurely pulled the trigger because of the need for speed. The pressure is always there: Do it now, get it done, make it happen — today. Most of the time, experienced managers can pull this off with minimal damage. But every once in a while when the stars and moon don’t align as planned, a serious misstep can occur and be darn near lethal. In the rush to solve problems or take advantage of opportunities, executives take shortcuts — as well they should, provided that they pause periodically for a sanity check to ensure they’re not sacrificing quality for speed.

The reason we accelerate at breakneck speeds is probably because from day one we have been taught that the shortest distance between point A and point B is a straight line. Much of the blame emanates from ninth-grade geometry class. With a protractor and compass in hand, it probably makes sense to use this mathematical discipline to solve problems or accomplish objectives. However, this is not necessarily the smartest trajectory to employ in business.

Whether it’s creating a new business methodology, developing a unique marketing strategy or building a business, many times a deliberate detour or zigzag can save time, money and angst. Anyone that’s been in the game of business for even a short time learns quickly that there is seldom a cut-and-dried solution where one starts at the beginning and proceeds directly to the finish line. Most times creating something new is an iterative process that requires flexibility and occasionally a jagged line to produce what is promised.

Let’s say that your plan is to create a new product by following a traditional process and timeline. You devise all of the steps necessary to assign the tasks, priorities, critical steps and a comprehensive action plan. When done, the good times are supposed to roll. Instead, the reality of the creation process usually has a variety of twists and turns with which you must deal. Following your script in order to get the new product to market, you follow time-proven prescribed steps. However, at midpoint someone discovers that the color, the size or the smell of the widget just won’t fly.

Instead of panicking or pulling the pin on the project and its development, the leader decides to call a timeout, take a deep breath and launch a series of additional consumer focus group sessions to do a deep dive to determine what’s wrong and what are the real hot buttons with the targeted consumers. Sure, this will cause a temporary delay and cost a few extra dollars, but at the end of the process, it will likely accelerate the positive results because the product will go to market hitting the bull’s eye of what the customer really wants and needs. Alternatively, if the team simply forged ahead in order to bring the product to market on schedule, it might have been completed, but simply put, the product would have flopped like a bad Broadway play.

At that point, the new product might be killed not because it’s the wrong product but because it’s the wrong color or size or it smells funny. This results in numerous confessions of mea culpa, heads rolling and money wasted.

Certainly speed counts and getting it right the first time without delay is a very good thing, but in the real world, unfortunately, it just doesn’t happen that way most times. Running full out with the gas pedal to the floor might make it seem like you’re leaving the competition in the dust, but in actuality, you could be making flawed decisions that come back to haunt you.

Everyone knows somebody who perpetually leaves the stadium before the big game ends, jumps in the car and drives home like a maniac, only to get in the house, plop down on the couch and proclaim, “I’m home.” Now what? Getting the job half done because you draw a straight line between two points is like going hell-bent for election but forgetting to take voter polls along the way. This usually results in defeat.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988. Starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind wellness chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.