Speed -- the mantra of modern business -- Part I

One of the consistent questions i have seen in workplaces over the past decade is “How soon can you get it done?” There are variants to this — “How soon can we do this?”, “How quickly can we go to market?” and so on. It is clear that speed has become a dominant feature of life in business — and possibly, in other facets of life too.

During a 2016 panel conversation at Davos, leading CEOs made the following statements —

“Speed is the new currency of business.”

“The future belongs to the fast.”

You can always go faster than you think you can”

“….I don’t feel that we are moving fast enough.”

The American philosopher Abraham Kaplan writes in The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioural Science“Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” While i understand that speed is an essential ingredient in business, i also wonder if speed has become our hammer.

Has reality really quickened?

In a 2015 article examining The Creed of Speed, the Economist takes the position that while “The speed with which ideas zip around the world has increased”, “other measures suggest sloth, not celerity.” Though people speak of business speeding up, “the figures suggest they are largely talking guff.” What is happening is that the “abundance of information” and advances in communication technologies are creating an “illusion of acceleration” that is largely “a cloak of hyperactivity.”

This could be argued against. Chances are that the need for speed differs across industries, across functions, and also depends on the competitive landscape or the market one is in.

There is also another angle to this that Yuval Noah Harari brings up in Homo Deus. “Knowledge that does not change behaviour is useless. But knowledge that changes behaviour quickly loses its relevance. The more data we have and the better we understand history, the faster history alters its course, and the faster our knowledge becomes outdated….Today our knowledge is increasing at breakneck speed, and theoretically we should understand the world better and better, But the very opposite is happening. Our new-found knowledge leads to faster economic, social and political changes; in an attempt to understand what is happening, we accelerate the accumulation of knowledge, which leads only to faster and greater upheavals. Consequently we are less and less able to make sense of the present or forecast the future.” This is an interesting idea. Though we know more, accumulate more data, and have more tools to work on data, we are less able to forecast. If this is so, a constant strategic response to this would be speed. The quicker we are, the more nimble we are, the better placed we are to navigate in an environment of immense unpredictability.

This means that even though speed causes more complexity, more wrong-turns, waste (energy and resources), and adds to the unpredictability — it becomes the operating norm.

This does not mean success is guaranteed to the speedy. Missing the bus has undesirable consequences. But so does showing up at the bus-stop on a day when there is no bus service. Companies that consistently create value are not necessarily those who run faster but those whose leaders have also mastered the the art of timing. And as the future gets more foggy, this art acquires greater value. Having said that, this does not diminish the case for speed being the operating norm. Better early than late or never.