Speed, Gears, and RPMs

There are three types of roads that you use in the Colorado mountains.

A highway.

A mountain pass.

Backcountry roads.

When you’re on the highway, you’re moving around 75 mph (120 kph), and your car’s engine operates at a pretty steady clip, although there are times where you must rev your engine to get up a large hill.

On a mountain pass, you’re usually going around 50 mph (80 kph), but your car’s engine is constantly revving up and down as you traverse the pass.

And on the backcountry roads, you’re traveling around 15 mph (25 kph), and most of the time, your car’s engine is working its butt off to get up a large hill.

By nearly anyone’s m­easure, I’m not a car guy. I drive a Subaru Outback because it works just fine. But even with my limited knowledge of cars, here’s something I do know about how they work:

A car has gears, and in each gear, a car has a lower limit for how fast it can go. So as you move into higher gears, you can travel much faster.

For instance, I can move 75 mph on a highway easily in fifth gear, but if I’m on a backcountry road, I need to be my lowest gear or two, allowing me to max out my car’s speed at 25 or 30 mph.

Yet, within each gear, a range of healthy RPMs is possible. RPM stands for revolutions per minute, measuring how fast the engine is spinning or how hard it’s working. Generally, the higher the RPMs, the more power the engine is outputting.

If you’re going up a large hill, a lower gear may actually be what you need to avoid overworking the engine as the car climbs. However, on highways where there are few obstacles or inclines, higher gears are normally preferred.

At a lower RPM in low gear, for example, your car may manage only 5 mph. In that same lower gear at a high RPM, your car could reach 20 mph, but going that speed in that gear will require a lot of work from the engine. You can’t stay here for long. Pretty soon, you either need to slow down or switch to a higher gear, requiring less work from your engine.

This is important because engines have limits on what they’re capable of: too high of RPMs—too much spinning, too much working—can cause severe engine damage. That’s why our cars have tachometers for gauging when our cars’ engines are nearing their breaking points.

The Backcountry Road

Over the last 18 months at GAN, since we first encountered COVID, we’ve been operating in low to medium gear in terms of how we’re operating.

Said another way – we’ve been on backcountry roads as a company.

Practically, this means a few things.

Forced into low gear by the crisis, we had to rework our systems for the new reality.

We had to rethink our products.

We had to rethink our team structure and rhythms.

We had to adapt everything for operating – at lower gears.

Throughout these slower months in terms of output, there have been times where our engines have still been revving like crazy.

For instance, in the early days of COVID, we were in low gear, but our team was operating with a lot of activity. We were trying to figure out what to do, who was going to do what, and how we would deploy all we wanted to deploy.

We had a lot of activity, but we weren’t moving fast. You can picture this on a backcountry road where your car goes over rocks, up a large incline, and navigating switchbacks.

We were doing a lot, but we couldn’t move fast because we were in low gear, forced upon us the external conditions. So our engine was spinning fast even though our tangible forward progress and speed were — slow.

All because we, as a company, didn’t have our systems, processes, and the team set up appropriately for the conditions. And as a result, we had to run like crazy—the human equivalent of high RPMs—to keep things moving, albeit slowly.

The Mountain Pass

Fast forward 18 months later, and we’re at a place where many of our systems, processes, and team are back in place.

We’ve shifted to a higher gear that can better support higher speeds.

As a result, we’re moving forward faster as a company. We may not be on a highway yet, but we’re for sure on a mountain pass. A road where we’re moving along but experiencing times of increased engine revving as we climb steep sections “on the mountain pass.”

But here’s the thing – at the same time, this faster speed doesn’t feel taxing. Our metrics show we’re moving faster, but it doesn’t feel that way internally regarding how much energy we’re expending.

Our speed has increased, but our engine isn’t nearing the red line of danger on the tachometer.

Why does this matter?

I’m around a lot of teams who say they don’t want to move faster. Who say they don’t want to burn out. Who say they’re worried about the pace of things.

I’m also around a lot of teams who are moving fast, but their engines are operating at a high pace.

Yet, here’s the reminder for both of those teams: It’s possible to move at high speed while maintaining low RPMs.

We can grow without needing to operate at high RPMs.

We can grow and iterate quickly while having an engine that isn’t working all that hard.

We can build systems, processes, and teams that scale like crazy but don’t require frantic energy.

And, we can also have seasons for different gears, RPMs, and speeds. We can have seasons on the highway, on a mountain pass, and on a backcountry road.

There are seasons for high speed. And seasons where high speed isn’t necessary. Seasons for high speed with high RPMs. And seasons for high speed and low RPMs.

But it’s up to us as leaders to decide which gear our company is in and how much we want to push our teams’ engines. And to realize that our teams, just like our engines, can only handle high RPMs for so long.

This means we must figure out how to seamlessly shift gears—which is an amazing task for us as leaders.