In May 1940, German troops overran Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France. It was the start of World War II.
The French were believed to have one of the strongest armies in the world. In planning for the German onslaught, the rest of Europe banked on French resistance. The UK's Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, wrote in his diary: "The one firm rock on which everyone was willing to build for the last two years was the French army."
The Germans were expected to take two weeks to reach France. Instead, they marched day and night and arrived in three days. German leaders provided fearless leadership from the front, inspiring their troops to push their bodies well beyond what they thought they could endure, in the name of acting quickly and ruthlessly. The French were unprepared. Their morale took a massive hit
Despite being outnumbered and out armoured, the Germans claimed victory in the space of weeks.
It wasn’t the first time speed led to triumph. Many of Napoleon's contemporaries use the same word to describe him: impatient. Speed was the most important thing to him. He wanted to do everything faster. He was obsessed with moving his troops as fast as possible. It even extended to his personal life. He said:
"If you want to dine well, dine with Cambacérès [his legal advisor]; if you want to dine badly, dine with Lebrun [his treasurer]; if you want to dine quickly, dine with me.” - Napoleon Bonaparte
John Boyd, one of the most influential military strategy writers of all time, gives an explanation for the unreasonable effectiveness of moving quickly. Boyd is most famous for the idea of the “OODA loop:” human action is an iterated process of observing the world, orienting within it, deciding how to respond and finally acting on the decision.
Boyd’s claim was that going through the OODA loop faster was a decisive advantage: to win, we should operate at a faster tempo than our adversaries. Better yet, get inside the adversary’s Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop. This makes you appear unpredictable and creates confusion and disorder among adversaries.
Speed is a multiplier for whatever existing effort, resources, and abilities you have.
“People tend to be either slow movers or fast movers and that seems hard to change. Being a fast mover is a big thing; a somewhat trivial example is that I have almost never made money investing in founders who do not respond quickly to important emails." - Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI
The same thing applies to teams. After surveying 2000+ companies, Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim proved that what separates elite engineering teams from average and poor ones, is primarily how quickly they ship. Their book, Accelerate, notes that when compared to low performers, high performers have 46 times more frequent code deployments and 440 times faster lead time from commit to deploy. Speed matters.
Speed isn't just a competitive advantage; it helps you improve quickly. More speed means more iterations which means more learning. When things change quickly and frequently, learning leads to winning.
Speed also leads to more opportunities. If you're known to move fast, more work is sent your way. You're exposed to more problems and different solutions. It's a virtuous cycle of getting better and better and faster and faster.
James Somers sums it up when he says:
"The prescription must be that if there’s something you want to do a lot of and get good at—like write, or fix bugs—you should try to do it faster. That doesn’t mean be sloppy. But it does mean, push yourself to go faster than you think is healthy. That’s because the task will come to cost less in your mind; it’ll have a lower activation energy. So you’ll do it more. And as you do it more (as long as you’re doing it deliberately), you’ll get better. Eventually you’ll be both fast and good.
In other words, the faster you do something the faster you can incorporate the result into what you do next. That means that moving quickly is an advantage that compounds. Being twice as fast doesn’t just double your output; it doubles the growth rate of your output. Over time, that makes an enormous difference.
Speed as Habit
It’s pretty clear that fast equals good. Like exercise, it can become habitual. Developing the muscle makes speed a serious competitive advantage.
When you feel things start to slow down, ask questions. Questions are your best weapon against inertia. It's as simple as asking “Why can't this be done sooner?” Asking it methodically, reliably and habitually can have a profound impact on the speed you operate at.
Comfort is a proxy for whether you’re going fast enough. If you have a low-level discomfort, a feeling that you're being stretched, you're probably going fast enough.
This isn't to say that you should prioritise speed above everything else, but rather that speed should be a consideration in every decision you make. It's about making things go as fast and as smooth as possible.
I'll close with my favourite example of moving quickly (it’s worth the read):
I was working on interrupt handlers and dispatchers for the system when I noticed Steve Jobs peering over the wall of my cubicle. “I’ve got good news for you,” he told me. “You’re working on the Mac team now. Come with me, and I’ll take you over to your new desk.”
“Hey, that’s great,” I responded. “I just need a day or two to finish up what I’m doing here, and I can start on the Mac on Monday.” “What are you working on? What’s more important than working on the Macintosh?” “Well, I’ve just started a new OS for the Apple II, DOS 4.0, and I want to get things in good enough shape so someone else can take it over.”
“No, you’re just wasting your time with that! Who cares about the Apple II? The Apple II will be dead in a few years. Your OS will be obsolete before it’s finished. The Macintosh is the future of Apple, and you’re going to start on it now!”
With that he walked over to my desk, found the power cord to my Apple II, gave it a sharp tug and pulled it out of the socket, causing my machine to lose power and the code I was working on to vanish. He unplugged my monitor, put it on top of the computer, and then picked both of them up and started walking away. “Come with me. I’m going to take you to your new desk.”
— Andy Hertzfeld, lead software engineer on the Macintosh