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Quick wins = strategic losses

Ruth Tearle - Friday, February 14, 2014

I was recently told by a friend of mine who had been working on a large scale, complex transformational project, that the project had been canceled. Instead, the team was told to focus on "quick wins."

But how often are quick wins used to disguise long term strategic losses?

What are quick wins?

Quick wins are cheap and easy initiatives that can be implemented quickly. The theory of quick wins is that they produce results fast. Like a pill that is supposed to help you to lose weight almost instantly, quick wins in organizations don't require effort, discipline or learning.

Why do leaders like quick wins?


Leaders like quick wins because they:

  • Make the leader and his team look good to people higher up in the hierarchy.
  • Make the leader and his team feel good about themselves because they feel they have achieved something.
  • Are good for the ego and for building self confidence.
  • Fit into the comfort zone of many managers. That of making quick operational decisions rather than having to struggle with complex strategic or systems thinking.

Where quick wins work.

Quick wins are best used to solve short term management or operational problems. e.g.

    Quick wins are best used for quick solutions to quick problems.
  • A management problem: Employees complain that they haven't had a Christmas party in years, and they don't feel that management cares about them. Providing a quick solution such as getting a group of employees to organize the company's Christmas party, and giving them an appropriate budget, will win trust quickly.

  • An important customer complains that this is the third time his order hasn't arrived on time. The manager intervenes to get the customers' order out immediately. He also decides to find out why the orders are not going out on time.

The danger: Quick wins = future losses

Leaders get used to the ease of focusing on quick wins. They then try to apply quick wins to everything - including long term strategies or large scale transformational projects.

But using quick wins on complex strategic projects often hide the fact that the leader is no longer committed to doing what it takes to achieve the long term goal.

Quick wins:

  • Are often used to make the leader look like he/she is achieving something when it becomes too difficult to achieve a strategic goal or complex project.
  • Makes the leader look good, or the team feel good about themselves - even when they haven't begun achieving what they need to achieve.
  • Make one area of the organization look good, at the expense of the rest of the organization.
  • Quick wins is about trying to make someone look good in the short term, to the detriment of the organization's long term success.

  • Distract the team from doing what they need to do, to achieve what they need to achieve in the long term.
  • Get the team to focus on what is quick to do or easy to measure, rather than what is important to long term success.
    • e.g. A company wanted to change their culture and make it more customer focused. After speaking to a few customers, they discovered their customers were so frustrated by their lack of service, that they couldn't talk about that company without swearing. When the CEO heard got a customer complaint from one of his friends, he hauled the manager into his office. The manager was told to solve the problem urgently. Needing a quick win, the manager started measuring how quickly his call center answered the phone. While the time to answer the calls improved dramatically, the customers were just as frustrated as before.
  • Quick wins get teams into the habit of only tackling the easy stuff.
  • Get employees and managers into a habit of only tackling the easy stuff. They don't develop the discipline they need to tackle something difficult or complex. They don't get into a habit of learning and developing.

Quick wins are a useful tool for managers who want to improve existing operations or solve short term problems.

The leader's alternative to quick wins.

If the definition of leadership, is someone who creates the future organization, then leaders need to focus on those skills that will help them lead a team towards their desired future. Skills that go far beyond short term operational thinking or quick wins. They need to use:

  • Strategic thinking.
  • Systems thinking.
  • Analytical thinking.
  • Coaching their teams for continuous learning and development.
  • Discipline.

But most of all, powerful leaders who prepare their organizations for the future, have the confidence, courage and discipline to reject demands for quick wins from others. Especially those who just want an easy excuse for not tackling the more challenging side of leadership.

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