Accelerating performance (White Paper)
Organizational Effectiveness

Accelerating performance (White Paper)

Disruption is here to stay, and many companies are failing to keep pace. A multiyear research effort highlights ways companies, teams, and leaders can mobilize, execute, and transform with agility.
Heidrick & Struggles
Accelerating Performance (White Paper)

Speed wins

Industries are being disrupted at a faster pace, and not just by the increasing power of innovation in our ever more digital world. Once staid industries such as automotive face a confounding, once-in-a-lifetime shift because of the prospects for self-driving cars and the advent of ride-sharing apps, but that’s actually just the beginning of the challenge in this industry. Within just the past eight years, oil prices soared to $140 a barrel, with predictions that they would head to the moon, only to have them tumble briefly to less than $30 and now settle, at least for a time, around $40. Each sudden change in oil prices not only affects demand for travel but also shapes interest in, say, fuel-efficient cars or even electric models, and everyone in the automotive industry had best be ready. Companies in this industry and others must also sort through greater urbanization, the rising influence of emerging-market consumers, and many other complex, interdependent trends.

Institutions are failing in a changing world

In the face of this disruption, many institutions are failing to keep up with the changes. Sometimes they very visibly fail to react to a changing world—as was the case with some financial institutions—and sometimes they just fade away. Look at Sears, which was easily the largest retailer in the United States for decades but which failed to react soon enough to the rise of Walmart, to the advent of online retailing, and to a host of other changes in the market and has been facing the prospect of a slow-motion collapse for almost a decade. The company recently announced that it and its sister company, Kmart, will shutter 78 more stores this summer.

Based on many years of research, supplemented by a major study for this report, we have found that organizational success requires acceleration. This doesn’t mean a relentless push for speed in every part of an organization. What it does mean is a careful analysis that leads to removing certain drag factors while taking other steps that will drive progress in the key areas that accelerate overall performance.

It’s about how you run the race

Based on an intimate look at almost half of the world’s largest companies, we identified a small group that we dubbed “superaccelerators.” We were surprised by two things. 

First, their exceptional success is not a case of choosing the right industry sector or geography. Our superaccelerators are not all tech companies, and they come from all geographies and include sectors thought of as stable or low margin. Second, we found that many companies are trying to do the same, sensible things: put customers first, adopt clear management structures, and so on.

What differentiated the superaccelerators from the also-rans was their ability to mobilize, execute, and transform with agility—being able to adapt and pivot faster than their competitors. That was what made the difference.

The following formula explains each of the main elements we identified as necessary for acceleration:

Beware the speed traps

Yet organizations must also accelerate with intelligence. To be sure, building the ability to operate quickly and nimbly is a positive, but it should not be seen as a crude call to just do everything faster. Even if that were possible, the effort required would be prohibitive—organizations can’t live every day like it’s a fire drill. A lot of the effort is wasted in frantic organizations, and people start to fall apart, leading to a cascade of problems.

Beware, therefore, of the acceleration trap. Choose to focus agility on where it is important, where it adds value, and where it helps win the competitive race—even when that means “slowing down to go fast.”

How well is my organization doing?

Our research led us to create a suite of survey-driven tools to better understand the ability to accelerate at the four levels that matter: strategy, organization, team, and individual. However, to have a first, quick sense of how your organization is doing, we have identified 13 drive and drag factors, grouped into four areas: mobilize, execute, transform, and agility.

For example, does your organization suffer from complacency or enjoy challenge? Is it characterized by resilience or frailty?

More important, any organization will be somewhere on the spectrum for each of these 13 drive and drag factors—each is very much a dimmer, not an “on–off” switch—so where are the biggest opportunities for improvement?

How do we get better?

Although each organization, of course, needs to map its own journey, that doesn’t mean each needs to be created from scratch. As we researched what made for successful companies, we catalogued good practices and have developed a list of 39 differentiating actions that organizations can use as ingredients for a change agenda that will move them toward acceleration.

New capabilities required

Building an organization that can mobilize, execute, and transform with agility is not as simple as just picking a handful of the most relevant differentiating actions and creating an agenda. Practices are only as good as the people implementing them. Your organization’s leaders are going to need four important capabilities.

Ripple intelligence is the ability to keep abreast of the multiple, interdependent changes happening in the world, your industry, and your organization and to understand the different ways they might interact and play out.

Resource fluidity is the skill of being able to constantly adjust the allocation of talent, resources, and ideas to the most important challenges.

Dissolving paradox means seeing past simplistic choices and recasting difficult decisions in ways that result in transformative, “win–win” outcomes.

Liquid leadership means being able to operate, whether through hierarchy or through other channels, to mobilize action and share information in the quickest and most appropriate way.

The challenge isn’t going away

Even with the necessary capabilities in place, maintaining a constant level of agility in an organization requires effort and vigilance—the jungle always grows back. 

Indeed, the need for agility is part of the new normal; competitive pressures and innovation will see to that. Just maintaining your organization’s current level of agility may not be enough to guarantee continuing to win the race.

About the authors

Ruben Hillar ( is global knowledge manager of Heidrick & Struggles' Leadership Consulting Practice; he is based in the Washington, DC, office.

Colin Price is an alumnus of the London office.

Sharon Toye ( is a partner in the Leadership Consulting Practice; she is based in the London office.

David Turnbull is an alumnus of the London office.

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