Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Why it's time to move fast and fix things

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Frances Frei

Mark Zuckerberg has a famous motto: Move fast and break things. Tell us how your preferred mantra, “Move fast and fix things,” differs from his.

We all want to accelerate progress within our organizations and in society at large. But Zuckerberg’s quote implies that a certain amount of wreckage is the necessary price we have to pay for inventing the future. We can either make progress or take care of people — one or the other. That quote gave speed a bad name. The other option is to go slow, which no one wants to do. So both options are unappealing and suboptimal.

The irony is, moving fast and breaking things actually slows you down, because you have to address all the wreckage along the way. But my co-author Anne Morriss and I have found that you actually can move fast if you fix things along the way. It might feel good in the moment to think, ‘We’re just going to steamroll right over everyone.’ But if you zoom your lens out, you realize that you can’t get the best from people if they’re busy cleaning up a mess.

The most effective leaders solve problems at an accelerated pace while also taking responsibility for the success and well-being of their customers, employees and shareholders. They move fast and fix things. Our framework is basically a playbook for solving hard problems with the level of urgency they demand.

Fixing things is synonymous with solving problems. What’s the best way to create an environment for doing that?

First of all, you’re going to need lots of diversity on the team.

The last thing you want is a group of people who all have the same perspective. We think of it as “diagonal representation” across a lot of categories and layers of the hierarchy. You also want to have people around you who are really good at finding problems, because some people have an allergic reaction to them. They think, "If I point out a problem, it will somehow make me look disloyal to the organization." You want people who are excited about making their organization better.

Tackling problems definitely takes a bit of fearlessness, as well as optimism, because it means believing that everything is fixable. The fact is, no one wants to work in an environment where nobody ever talks about problems — and as a result, nothing improves.

The first step in your framework is to identify a problem to address. What if people come up with five or six things that need fixing? How do they decide what to tackle first? I advise teams to address the problem that is causing the most pain. Some might think you should tackle the one that is easiest to solve, but I don’t subscribe to that. I want to know which one can add the most zeros if we fix it. So, go to the problem with the greatest consequences or your organization, and whatever that ‘presenting problem’ is, do your due diligence to discover the underlying issues beneath it and to ensure it’s the real problem.

Can you give an example of what a “presenting problem” might look like?

I was recently working with an organization that said to me, “We really need your help: We have a gender problem.” I was like, oh, tell me about it, and they explained they had no women in senior management. I agreed that this sounded like a gender problem. Then they said they also had another problem: the business wasn’t performing. Their question was, “Should we solve our gender problem or our business problem?”

Once I analyzed the situation, it turned out that their presenting problem was not actually a gender problem. Yes, it manifested itself in variance across gender, but it turned out that the real problem was the company’s communication style. Its leaders had a preferred way of communicating that was very aggressive and confrontational. If someone said “Hello,” they would ask, “What do you mean by that?!” They had managed to assemble a team that was world class in one area: being confrontational.

The fact is, in that industry and more generally, women with other options will not gallop toward confrontational directness. So, what initially looked like a bias against women was actually a bias against anyone who didn’t want to be confrontational. Once we solved the communication problem, it made the environment better for everyone, including women. If we had continued to focus on solving the original presenting problem, it wouldn’t have worked, because we would have been solving the wrong problem. It took an outsider to help them go from presenting problem to symptom to underlying diagnosis the first time. But they will be able to do this themselves going forward, having seen how it’s done.

Trust is a key element of your framework. Can you touch on some of its key drivers these days?

Speed unleashes your organization’s energy and reveals where you’re going; but trust convinces your stakeholders to come along for the ride. The best leaders invest as much time and energy into building trust as they do into building speed. Whenever you have a problem that involves human beings, it is very likely that trust has broken down. And here’s what we know: breakdowns in personal trust can be traced down to three culprits. If you don’t trust me, it’s because you doubt my authenticity, you doubt my logic or you doubt my empathy.

Just like personal trust, organizational trust relies on the presence of authenticity, empathy and logic. Organizations that fail to build as much trust as they could tend to get shaky or ‘wobble’ on one of these three dimensions. We’ve worked with thousands of organizations and have yet to find a situation that couldn’t be described by a breakdown in either authenticity, logic or empathy. So first of all, figure out which of the three is the culprit of your trust issue.

You believe a culture of inclusion has four levels to it. What are they?

The four levels of inclusion are feeling safe (physically, emotionally and psychologically), feeling welcome, feeling celebrated and feeling championed. Despite any difference that any of us brings to the table, it is the job of all of us to make sure that each of us feels safe and welcome, is celebrated for our uniqueness and that we champion people even when they are not in our presence.

If we’re not deliberate about inclusion, we are likely to succumb to one of the most common human biases: we naturally like people who are similar to us. Without even realizing it, we are more likely to champion people who are like us. But we have to address all four steps for everyone — not just for the those who are similar to us.

How does an organization know where it sits on ‘the inclusion dial’?

If you want to know where your organization or department sits on the dial, gather everyone and do an anonymous poll, asking them to describe their personal feelings of inclusion at the organization. Give each participant four choices: I feel safe, I feel welcome, I feel celebrated and I feel championed. No one will have any incentive to give a wrong answer, because it’s anonymous. This is an easy way to understand where you sit on the dial. Once you know the distribution, the goal is to move people up the dial.

Here’s the catch: you can’t move one group up the dial at the expense of moving another group down. This is an example where society cannot be our role model. In society, at least in the U.S. today, Republicans want to make Republicans feel included at the expense of Democrats feeling excluded, and vice versa. Few would argue that this is a sub-optimal state of affairs. Organizations have to be better than society. Leaders must do things in a way that makes it better for everyone.

Are there any tried-and-true ways to succeed while feeling different within an organization?

The first step is to make sure you feel safe, and as indicated earlier, there are three levels to that: physical safety, emotional safety and psychological safety. If even one person on your team doesn’t feel physically safe, no level of psychological safety is going to matter.

One engineering organization I spent some time with had very few female engineers on staff, and once I studied it for a while, I saw why: women were coming forward with stories of unbelievable things happening to them on a daily basis. I remember one example where a female manager said to a colleague, “I’m going to stay late today; can you stick around for a while and help me with this?” The male engineer answered, “Sure, if you sleep with me.” Then, after a pause, he added, “Just kidding.” Anytime someone says, “just kidding” — at work or in life — it’s a telltale sign of a problematic environment.

The long-term goal for every organization should be to operationalize what it means to feel safe at work, for everyone. Only once that happens can you free up the resources that make tough problems solvable — things like energy, creativity, even joy. These things can feel difficult to access right now, as we all try to live and lead through historic levels of uncertainty. But without them, we and the people we work with have little chance of thriving.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of the Rotman Management magazine. 

Frances Frei is a professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School. Her latest book is Move Fast and Fix Things: The Trusted Leader’s Guide to Solving Hard Problems (HBR Press, 2023), co-authored with Anne Morriss.