The Case for Slow Work
Issue 111, May 31, 2023
How do we anticipate what’s next before the breakthroughs are even made that will ultimately shape the future? History is written in the eye of the beholder. False assumptions are the roots of history, only to be reversed/updated/revised when new information is revealed to correct the false narrative. One way to look at it is how Piet Hut, astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, describes scientific advances: Research scientists are bodhisattvas, both teachers and iterative learners. They never achieve ultimate enlightenment (like the Buddha) because their role is to build on the knowledge that came before them, as they build their knowledge for future scientists.
When you think about it, that’s the role that the most talented leaders play. The innovations, moon shots and a quantum shift in new products and services are the domain of the iconoclasts, outliers, and geniuses. But the world advances with the wisdom and perseverance of the bodhisattvas – individuals who lead without being driven by personal success. And that generally takes time and mindfulness.
One case for slow work is that there is a lot to be said for the enlightened leaders that build solid infrastructures in their workforce, workplace culture and in a systemic approach to growth. Without a foundation, new ideas and advances don’t have the stability to be tested, vetted, and accepted. So many people seeking any change are in such a hurry that they don’t build the appropriate construct that supports the change they are hoping for. The result is a syndrome of hurry-up-and-wait for everyone else to catch up. And that leads to dispirited frustration and ultimately dysfunctional change management.
Here’s a good example of how slowing down has big payoffs, Dr. Angela Cox writes for Entrepreneur stating, “When leaders slow down and connect empathetically with their people, everything about the morale, productivity, and tenor of the team can change for the better.” She adds, “Haste is a form of violence. When we move with haste, things get broken. People get hurt.” She describes the danger of moving through a child’s playroom in the dark when you know the child has been playing with Legos all day. Moving deliberately requires context. She continues, “Every day we move through life ignoring the context of the people around us, stumbling over building blocks and causing unnecessary pain. Many leaders mistake haste for urgency.”
It is a common mistake to confuse busyness for industriousness and meaningful work. Busy people are admired, even if their busyness has no real value. Typically, slow and deliberate are often denigrated. Busy people with their non-stop meetings and lack of time wear their schedules like badges of honor. Cox adds, “But at the end of the day, what was truly accomplished, besides hours filled with talking but empty of true connection? Slowing down gives us the opportunity to ask better questions, create safe places for conversations and make better decisions that improve workplace environments and make the world a safer, kinder, more inclusive place.” Well said! And remember, there is an important nuance to haste; moving fast is hurtling towards a brick wall. However, managing urgency is purposeful and intentional movement.
The Power of No
There is more to the story of busyness. According to research by UC Berkeley professor Morten Hansen, “learning to say no to more work allows us to minimize our obligations and attain greater focus. Additionally, those with difficulty saying no are more likely to experience stress, burnout, and depression.” (Inc.) Steve Jobs was a big advocate of saying no. At the 1997 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, Jobs said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done.”
As Jane Fonda has said, “No is a complete sentence.” And Hansen adds, “As you approach the 50- to 65-hour mark, the benefits of those additional hours start to drop, and once you’re logging in 65 hours or more, your overall performance declines. Excellent work requires focus, and focus requires few.” Next gens have vocalized, working to live means a well-balanced lifestyle by limiting the number of working hours to be more productive in all aspects of life, including work. Hansen adds, “Productive working professionals set clear boundaries on work priorities and what to focus on during a reasonable eight to 10-hour workday. Then, they work smart and efficiently to make sure it happens.” Working smart is saying no and working slow. Setting limits liberates deep thinking, which organizations need to be seriously sustainable.
A Culture that Celebrates Speed
Think about how we use speed as a positive marker: speed to market, speed to upgrade systems, speed to stay ahead of technological change, speed to achieve profitability, speed to amass pageviews, speed to scale, quick wins, short-term profits, fail and fail fast. Forbes writer Vineet Bansal quotes a Navy SEAL motto, “If you sacrifice strategy, performance and teamwork for speed, you’re dead in the water.” He supports redefining what moving slowly can mean in business: it is thoughtful, strategic, and smooth.
The race to innovate is an Achilles Heel for many organizations. Chasing new tech is another blind spot. The hurry-up-and-wait for everyone else to catch up syndrome often has bad results: missed opportunities, unmet goals despite realistic forecasts, a workforce that simply doesn’t understand what is happening or where they are going … or the worst, complete failure.
Why? Often the chase for change relies on technology. The reality is that rate of stakeholders’ adoption of a new technology, whether an App to handle a mundane task or our current fascination with the unlimited possibilities of AI, is lagging far behind the potential of these new tools.
The visionaries often wear blinders. They forget that if there is no understanding of how the workforce can contribute, then there is no alignment, and therefore, no support. When it comes to new tech adoption, it needs to resonate in the eyes of employees, stakeholders, and customers – all of whom need to understand the vision, opportunity, and application. If they don’t understand it for themselves and in how it applies to their lives, support and adoption of tech will flounder.
The Tortoise and the Hare
There is a business case to be made for slow work. “With many workers still battling exhaustion and the collapse of any work-life boundary, slow work embraces what we’ve always known to be true: Work ultimately isn’t what leads to a fulfilling life. Slowness liberates us—and the things that make us happy—from incessant hurry,” according to Paige Cutis, writing for Yes. She adds that slow work invites us to shut out low-value tasks and prioritize the impactful work that moves the needle. That harkens back to those workers who confuse packed schedules with meaningfulness.
Entrepreneur Jason Fried, founder of 37signals, has a philosophy that is against trend. “We’re about being in business for the long haul and keeping the team together over the long haul. I would never trade a short-term burst for a long-term decline in morale. That happens a lot in the tech business: They burn people out and get someone else. Lots of startups burn people out with 60, 70, 80 hours of work per week. They know that both the people or the company will flame out or be bought or whatever, and they don’t care, they just burn their resources. It’s like drilling for as much oil as you possibly can. You can look at people the same way.” (Fast Company)
At 2040, we work with clients to understand there is a great advantage to changing the pace to ensure that strategies are in place to achieve the vision and goals. Taking the right amount of time doesn’t mean dragging your heels out of indecision or confusion. It does mean building a sustainable pathway to the future. How? Taking a multidisciplinary approach helps to anticipate the gaps, unanticipated applications, flaws and shortcomings of new ideas and products.
We have stressed the importance of the wisdom-of-crowds approach to decision making. That requires patience, empathy, and open-mindedness. We are proponents of taking a pause to reflect, use critical thinking and enlarging who’s at the table making the decisions. Foresight is better than hindsight, especially when people and profits are involved. Winning a race in business is not necessarily a victory if the speed to market ignores the elemental building blocks required for sustainable success.
If we learn from Aesop’s fable. Speed and the illusion of winning can be blamed on hubris. The leaders driven to win at any cost can be accused of arrogance, which in turn can result in not seeing the details and what’s hidden in plain sight among competitors. Think of the current situation with Amazon. Jeff Bezos instilled a corporate culture to scale fast. In their rush to win, they missed some of the cultural and behavioral cues along the way. Prime is no longer the competitive edge and free shipping and returns have become a business risk. Shedding business divisions and thousands of employees later, they are beginning to look more like the hare.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.