Monday, March 9, 2009

Fail fast, learn fast, fix fast

I was heartened the other day to see that even Warren Buffett can own up to making a wrong call in today’s choppy economic waters. Not that I’d wish for one moment that Buffett should lose so much as a cent, but it did confirm something I’ve recently been talking about with people at Saatchi & Saatchi. The historic loss for Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway came on the back of dramatic falls in energy prices at a time when many indicators were still pointing up. In the latest of his famous letters to shareholders, Buffett fronted up: “During 2008 I did some dumb things in investment.”

What this tells me is that, at this time, no one – and I mean no one – can see very far into the future. The current turmoil is contributing more alarm and confusion to make the principle even clearer. Complicating the human struggle with foresight, I believe that the higher up the management stack you sit, the harder it is to know what’s coming. That’s why I tell our people (the ones who interact directly with consumers, clients, and suppliers) that this can uniquely be their time. Companies need their insights, intuitions, and connections now more than ever. When something big is coming at you from around the corner, the people on the ground will feel the vibrations first. They’ll be best placed to decide what to do fast: get us out of the way or set up a roadside stall.

Despite all the drama and uncertainly, this is the perfect time to take smart risks. Not to run out into the traffic and wave a sign, but to get a good measure on what’s around them, see an opportunity, and act fast. Swift decisive action is always a challenge for any company, especially when it is spread around the world. At Saatchi & Saatchi, we have a three-day rule. If anyone in the company has a problem that lasts more than 24 hours, they send it to me. I get back to them with an answer within 24 hours. They then have 24 hours to implement. Fail fast, learn fast and fix fast.