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Are you driving your business on a highway to hell? Tactics for growth from traffic havoc

“The fact that there’s a highway to hell and only a stairway to heaven says a lot about anticipated traffic numbers.”

I certainly thought I was on AC/DC’s Highway to Hell last night amidst a sea of red lights on my way to a business dinner. My 85 minute car ride was filled with congestion, seemingly caused by a lot of ‘speed ups’ quickly followed by ‘slow downs’. I found myself getting more and more frustrated with the drivers in front of me that kept tapping their brakes just as we started to accelerate. The whole traffic flow abruptly halted as soon as one car’s brake lights illuminated.

I found myself thinking about one of my traffic pet peeves: brake tappers. Why can’t drivers maintain a consistent, albeit slightly lower speed to keep movement steady? Don’t these ‘brake tapping’ drivers realize the traffic jam wave effect they create as everyone behind them slows exponentially in response?

While frustrating in traffic, it can be more so in corporate environments. ‘Brake tapping’ in the form of strategy or product pivots may seem minimal or even essential among top decision makers in a company. But by the time mid-level or front-line staff are notified, what was meant to be a slight shift can feel like slamming on the brakes. Do this too many times and the organization may feel more like a highway to execution swirl and performance hell than a stairway to growth.

I have often seen this ‘traffic jam wave’ effect occur when standing up new businesses.

Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs often need to tweak their product’s design to secure additional investment or open up a broader market segment. In more dire cases when faced with capital raise needs, these ‘tweaks’ can be significant. Such pivots or shifts can make strategic sense and further validate business potential. However, they also are akin to ‘tapping the brakes’ to prepare for what’s ahead on your growth highway. In more extreme cases, it’s like slamming on the brakes to accelerate in another direction.

Whether you’re tapping, stepping, or slamming on the brakes, the impact for your teams is greater in response. Even a small shift in strategy could change product design, deployment, go-to-market plans, and delivery against existing customer commitments. What may have been a ‘tap’ for the leader could cause a full-on traffic jam across an organization – risking schedule, brand, and employee morale.

The challenge executives therefore face in start up or early stage business scaling is preserving agility and flexibility while maintaining momentum and alignment. What is a leader to do when faced with strategic requirements often attached to investment that may differ in direction from existing plans and commitments?

Traffic studies on mitigating brake-induced “phantom” traffic jams from MIT, Temple University, and Japanese researchers offer lessons applicable to this common balancing act that nascent businesses especially have to address. Their analysis found no clear fix to eliminate such phantom back ups once they exist. However, it identified ways to minimize the likelihood that they occur.

For leaders of start ups and scaling businesses alike, here are some key takeaways to help you avoid strategy traffic jams:

🗺 Create the straightest line among your strategy’s milestones. Strategic plans necessarily need to evolve to address market conditions. However, in the early days of an organization when getting to value (MVP, customer revenue) is critical, focus on connecting the near-term milestones in the most direct way possible. There’s a reason that highways are ideally straight: to create the shortest journey to a destination. So, too, should be the path between major milestones. When you hit an opportunity or impediment in your route, refer back to your strategy map to identify the most direct detour.

🏁 Set varying speed limits. The excitement and motivation to go, go, go can be infectiously positive in the early days of a company or new business offering. However, not all activities require the same speed. Just as traffic is best managed when speed limits vary to mitigate known or likely occurring roadway shifts (such as an upcoming curve or weather impact), the pace of activity across a business can have speed limits, too. Consider setting different deadlines, milestone dates, and review periods across product, marketing, and sales cycles to allow ample time to course correct, identify pivots, or address feedback. Sequencing such speed limits helps both improve interdependent collaboration and ultimately maintain a more even speed to value.

🎮 Automate tasks that accelerate pace. Much like a network of self-driving cars could theoretically minimize phantom traffic back ups, automating operations can help save employee time for higher-value activities and ensure on-time execution of reactive, rote functions. Automation doesn’t mean expensive technology expenditures. It could mean having anything from project management software to timed email notifications for vendor invoicing to even using generative AI to develop marketing collateral. Consider adopting tools that can facilitate consistency and speed across an enterprise.

I’m grateful to not be traveling much this holiday season, but I know the brake-tappers will inevitably be in full effect. Here’s hoping that they remember that they’re not in traffic, they are the traffic.

NBG Strategy Consulting accelerates client growth by developing strategy and implementation plans that minimize traffic jams enterprise-wide.

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