Speed -- the mantra of modern business -- Part 2

While speed is a fact of life in many businesses, it appears to be causing havoc in the lives of individuals.

The psychologist Stephanie Brown writes, in Speed: Facing Our Addiction to Fast and Faster -- and Overcoming Our Fear of Slowing Down — “I live and work in Silicon Valley, the heart of technology innovation and revolution over the last thirty years….As I’ve observed our culture over the last twenty years, I see that society has lost control. Society as a whole, and the people who make up society, now look and sound like addicts. People are out of control in their drive for speed.”

Multiple studies such as the 2016 ILO report on Workplace Stress tell us that workplace stress caused, among other things, by the speed at which work is expected to be done, is leading to not just burnout but also cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal disorders. While the research on this is fairly nascent, what it all points to is clear — our speedy lifestyle is damaging our health.

There is also another effect. As more and more gets added to the mix of things, we also have come to believe that multi-tasking is a skill to cultivate. But, research tells us that multi-tasking has a cognitive switching cost, and leads to distraction that causes falls in IQ that are twice that seen in marijuana smokers. Moreover, as Stanford Professor Anthony Wagner concludes (after a study over 11 years),“multitasking isn’t efficient.”

In other words, the operating norm at work, speed, is leading to ill-health and impacting well-being.

What do we do? While mindful contemplation that aims to put things in perspective through periods of daily retreat does help, a powerful way to address this is to practically trim our lifestyle a bit.

In one of the many insightful sections of Good to Great, Jim Collins points out that “most of us lead busy but undisciplined lives. We have ever-expanding “to do” lists, bring to build momentum by doing, doing, doing — and doing more.” Jim asks — “Do you have a “to do” list? Do you also have a “stop doing” list?” This is not a new idea with roots stretching back to Vilfredo Pareto who, in the late 1909, published his 80/20 theory based on studies of wealth distribution. i think a key lies in this.

Pareto’s 80/20 lens presents us with a view of life where twenty percent of causes lead to eighty percent of the results. Put plainly, for our purposes, we would do well to identify the vital few in the workplace and dedicate our focus to these alone. We could extend this beyond the workplace and say the same thing — focus on the vital few and leave the rest be. When we are selective about what we do, about where our energies will flow, we establish a narrow field of focus — a field that consists of what we believe to be of importance to our work, and our lives. However much the speeding world may scream, we do not overload. This is also a barricade against distractions and helps reduce multitasking. We also make a shift from being busy to being productive. Robert J Sawyer writes in Calculating God that “learning to ignore things is one of the great paths to inner peace.” i would say that, in our times, “learning what to ignore and ignoring it” is vital for inner peace and effectiveness.

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.