Fast, Cheap, & Good. Pick Two.

One of the hardest things any leader has to do is balance the needs of the boss while not wearing out the team.


When trying to diffuse a situation where my organization was being asked to do something impossible, I often used the line, “You can have it ‘fast’, ‘good’, or ‘cheap’… pick two.” Phrasing the decision in those terms is a way to focus on the allocation of usually scarce resources on the most important priorities, while making sure I managed my boss’ expectations. We engineers have a “can do” culture, but we have to be sure our customers and stakeholders understand that there are costs. Those Star Trek episodes usually end right after Mr Scott’s miracle saves of the Enterprise, but no one sees the Engine Room crew re-installing the warp core in dry dock later. Heroics are possible, but they aren’t usually cheap.

The explosive ordnance disposal Airmen I work with have a saying, “Slow is fast and fast is slow.” What this means is that rushing through a task usually means you’ll have to do it over in order to do it right. As you might imagine, “do over” doesn’t really work for EOD. Truly, “do over” doesn’t work for a lot of people, not just EOD. In one of my jobs as a “budgeteer” on the Headquarters Air Force staff we had to track and program the movement of money to support the bases’ facility programs. Missing a decimal point might mean a million dollar mistake. Because of those stakes, we had the expression “speed kills” which was a reminder to take our time and get it right the first time. That lesson is easily transferable to fields as diverse as food service or auto repair.

Of course, sometimes you just have to “get r done” and you’re willing to sacrifice cost/quality to meet a deadline. Emergencies or crash programs sometimes require meeting the deadline even if the cost is enormous or the quality is not optimal. If you want something bad, often that’s the way you’re gonna get it. But if timing is more important than quality, then “fast and cheap” may be called for.

Executives are usually in the position to lead because they get results. Truly effective executive leaders can get the results they require without overextending by applying the “fast, good, cheap” rule.

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