May 7, 2018

Is faster always better? The case for a certain slowness

In the so-called VUCA world where greater agility seems to have be the only response, this is an important question. Even though agility is about much more than speed, the first response I often get when I ask leaders why they’ve embarked on so-called Agile Transformation processes is “we need to be faster”. The maturity of Agile teams in software development contexts (specifically SCRUM) is often linked to an increase in “velocity”, i.e. being able to get more and more work done in each successive two-week sprint.

As Agile is spilling over from software development into other parts of the business (e.g. HR) and strategic agility is becoming a stated need in most businesses, questioning this pre-occupation with speed becomes even more important. This is not to say that optimising flow and removing obstacles to faster delivery is bad, but the implied association of speed with effectiveness becomes problematic.

Again I turn to Paul Cilliers writings for a complex system’s perspective: His article on the importance of a certain slowness, has long been a favorite of mine, so I really enjoyed reflecting on it again.  His words are in italics.

“It should be stated up front that there is no argument against an appropriate fastness. A stew should simmer slowly, but a good steak should be grilled intensely and briefly. The argument is against unreflective speed, speed at all cost, or, more precisely, against speed as a virtue in itself: against the alignment of “speed” with notions like efficiency, success, quality, and importance.

If we fall into the trap of unreflective speed, we may end up delivering products that offer no value at ever increasing speed. Take the idea of team Velocity: Strathern’s variation of Goodhart’s law states: when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure. When the measure of velocity (or speed) becomes our target, quality and learning suffers. When all we focus on in our retrospectives is how we can deliver faster, and we don’t reflect on other aspects of our team’s dynamic, or we don’t take the time to really listen to our customers and figure out what they need, we will not deliver real value.

This principle doesn’t only apply to Agile teams.   In call centres, value statements around “customer centricity” and the customer coming first is plastered all over the walls and the agent’s screens. But what is measured is speed – how many calls were handled in the shortest time. In one of my clients the agents had a performance target linked to a measure of spending no more than 2,5 minutes per call. So if you’re the agent who gets the difficult customer, when it comes to 2 minutes 15 seconds, what will matter more? Customer service or your performance bonus? Again, the focus on speed as a measure for efficiency often leads to ineffectiveness and other unintended consequences.

Innovation and delivering sustainable business benefit is often short-circuited by the pressure of unrealistic time lines to deliver shareholder value. I recently spent time with the Executive leadership of a new unit that was incubated as a separate entity within a large corporate. They were expected to innovate and completely disrupt the very established and highly competitive space of short term insurance. They were given a very short time horizon in which they had to become profitable.   This pressure, and the need for speed, completely paralysed them. Instead of taking the necessary risks required to innovate, the unrealistic targets made them overly careful. When they did take a risk, time pressure often led to them abandoning their ideas prematurely before they had time to prove their value.  The short-termism driven by the need to show quarterly results undermine innovation and sustainable growth in many (if not all) public companies.

The tyranny of the moment

"The way in which contemporary society lives in an eternal present, or what Eriksen (2001) calls the “tyranny of the moment,” is made possible, and augmented, by the surge in technology, especially computer and telecommunication technology. We are instantaneously in contact with everybody, everywhere. Not only has the distinction between home and the workplace collapsed, but also the distinction between work time and private or leisure time. It is expected of many of us to be available, always and everywhere. This state of affairs may have been less detrimental if it did not also demand instant response. The very reason for mobile phones and email lies in the fact that immediate response is possible. It is in this “immediate” that the main problem lies. There is less and less time for reflection. Reflection involves delay, and in a cult of speed, delay is unacceptable."

I do a lot of culture work in organisations that mostly involves gathering and making sense of people’s anecdotes of real experiences. In virtually all these projects, there are emergent themes linked to burn-out, lack of work-life balance and inhumane work environments. An acquaintance who works in a clinic that is situated near the head offices of three of our large banks told me that they deal with so many burn-out cases that they’ve created disease names for the presenting symptoms from each of the banks (“BankA-itis” looks slightly different than BankB-itis”). To my mind this is an indictment on the corporate world – almost all of these companies will have a value statements somewhere of how “our people are our greatest asset”, however when it comes right down to it, efficiency is all that matters.

As a response to the increasing impact of our drive for efficiency on wellness, many individuals and organisations have turned to mindfulness and meditative practices. Predictably though, these need to fit into our speed obsessed culture: if a meditation or practice isn’t short enough to fit into our busy schedules, we’re not interested.

I’m reminded of the famous marshmallow experiment where children's capacity for delayed gratification was tested: they could have one marshmallow immediately, or two later if they were able to wait. Nowadays I think most of us would fail that test: we consume fast food; we have movies on-demand and binge-watch our favorite series because we simply cannot wait a week between episodes. It seems we’re all living in the tyranny of the moment while ironically becoming less and less present in it.   I am encouraged though by some counter trends: slow food, slow cities, slow coffee and a return to “artisanal” values and products like vinyl records and artisan bread from the corner baker vs the commercialised alternatives.

“In his novel Slowness, Milan Kundera (1996) uses the metaphor of somebody riding on a motorcycle as being constantly in the present. Speed and the demands of the machine reduce his horizon to something immediate. Someone walking, however, is moving at a pace that allows for a much wider horizon. The stroll unfolds in time in a way that opens up reflection about where we are coming from and where we are going to as we walk. This theme of both the past and the future being present in a meaningful experience of the present … the argument for a meaningful temporality – that is, something slower – will be made here from the perspective of the dynamics of complex systems.

On memory and complex systems

“An important aspect of complex systems, one that certainly complicates our understanding and modeling of such systems, is their temporal nature. Complex systems unfold in time, they have a history that co-determines present behavior and they anticipate the future. Moreover, as we know at least since the work of Prigogine, the behavior of complex systems is not symmetrical in time. They have a past and a future that are not interchangeable. This being “situated in time” does not always receive adequate attention in our analysis of complexity.

The central notion at stake when we talk of time and complexity is that of “memory.” Memory is the persistence of certain states of the system, of carrying something from the past over into the future. It is not merely the remembering of something in the past as if belonging to that past, it is the past being active in the present.

If one characterizes memory as the past being carried over into the future, it follows that the future can only be anticipated in terms of the memory of the system. Anticipation is not, or at least should not be, simply an extrapolation of the present. It is a complex, non-linear process that tries to find some trajectory, some way of “vaulting” from that which has already been experienced to that which has to be coped with. The quality of the anticipation is a function of the quality of the memory. A more varied, richer, deeper, and better-integrated memory will open up more sophisticated anticipatory capabilities.

The point is that a system that has carefully accumulated the relevant memories and experiences over time will be in a better position to react quickly than one that is perpetually jumping from one state to the other.”

Like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen’s Race (illustrated in the headline image by John Tenniel), many organisations seem to be stuck in a cycle of change without ever achieving real change, but also never remaining stable long enough to accumulate the deep memory that Paul Cilliers refers to in the quote above.

"Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" -  Carroll, Lewis: Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Chapter 2

I often ask workshop participants how many restructurings they’ve been through in the last year. Most of them answer with something along the lines of: “I’ve been through 2 in the last 6 months, never mind a year!”   In organisations where a habit has formed of continuous change (seemingly) for the sake of change, people become severely “change” fatigued, but ironically would say that there is always some kind of a change process on the go but nothing ever really changes. This constant churn, reminiscent of Carroll’s Red Queen sacrifices not only forward momentum, but also the accumulation of deep memory that facilitates change resilience.

Distinguishing signal from noise

"Memory is information from the environment that has been filtered, it is that which has been interpreted – by the memory already sedimented in the system – as significant. The identity of the system is, in some sense, its collection of dynamic memories. The implication is that the system cannot reflect, or act on, everything that is going on in the environment at a given moment. If that were the case, the system would always be merely a reflection of its environment and would have no identity of its own. In order for it to be a system at all, a system that has its own identity, that can react to the environment and not merely mirror it, a certain hysteresis is required. The system must be slower than its environment.

The system has to hang on to some aspects with a certain tenacity: not let go of them too quickly. There is risk involved in this, of course. The system has to invest resources in this process. It cannot maintain everything; it has to select. If too many of the wrong things are carried over it will impair the system’s performance. However, if not enough is carried over, it will also fail.

To put it in slightly different terms: The system has to find a way to discriminate between information and noise. If it follows every trend in its environment, it will also be following noise. If it reacts too slowly it will only follow the low-frequency trends, which may also be just noise. The system must be stable enough not to be buffeted around by every fluctuation, and it must be flexible enough to be able to adapt when necessary.

Jack Welsh famously said: “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” We often use quotes like this to justify the need for agility (I must admit I’ve used this particular one myself). But if it is true that a system can only maintain its identity as separate from its environment through constant reflection and selection of what to respond to and what not to; changing as fast or faster  than the environment is not a sustainable strategy. If we never take time out to think deeply about where we’ve come from, where we are now and where we are going, we run the risk of losing the very DNA that is our competitive advantage. If leaders in organisations have no time to read, learn and cultivate diverse networks how will they know how to distinguish signal from noise when it comes to strategy?

“It must be stressed again that the argument for a certain slowness is not a conservative argument. A certain amount of conservation is a pre- requisite for a system to maintain itself, of course. The important point, to which we shall return, is that a “slow” strategy is not a backward-looking one. If a somewhat slower tempo allows a system to develop a richer and more reflective memory, it will allow the system to deal with surprises in its environment in a better way. The argument of slowness is actually an argument for appropriate speed. There is no objective or immediate rule for what that speed is. If anything, it is a matter of experience, and experience (as Aristotle urged) has to be gained, it cannot be “given” in an immediate way. It is experience that determines which piece of meat should be fried quickly and which should simmer slowly in the stew. She who fries everything quickly will only have something nice to eat now and then, and then purely by chance.|

It is exactly when one would think that being fast is what is required that slowness proves its worth."

For me it is interesting to use this final sentence to reflect upon the recent governmental change in leadership in South Africa. The pressure on Cyril Ramaphosa to act fast has been immense: it is interesting to see how he navigates this complexity. When needed, he acts quickly; but his default stance seems to be one of wide consultation and a reflective slowness. When dealing with complex issues like land reform, I find this encouraging. The last thing South Africa needs now is unreflective knee-jerk responses. Let’s hope that in this instance his slowness will “prove its worth”.

3 comments on “Is faster always better? The case for a certain slowness”

  1. A great article that leaves me wondering what happens to individuals who function at a slower pace and are more effective? You'd think others might notice and slow down too, but actually I suspect that their pace is perceived as a negative element of their performance and the positive aspects are attributed to something else entirely (e.g. the hard work of others or plain luck).

    If this were true would it mean the pace of an organisation is determined by the organisation itself, not by the individuals in it? This would have implications management and leadership.

    1. John, that is an important point. I think we've created cultures where busyness is celebrated - it's almost as if its become shameful to not be able to complain about being too busy. I think in such cultures people work at a slower pace are often sidelined and looked down upon; however I've also found that others often envy them as well - in some of our story sessions, people would talk about how they wish they could be more like these people, who seemed to better at maintaining healthy boundaries. I think we really need to look at what we inventivise, what we celebrate and what we punish in our organisations.

  2. Speed and time matter only for things that don't last long. If we want something (meaningful) to last for an eternity speed and time become irrelevant. For this one may need to figure out what it is that we want for an eternity...

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