Friday, March 7, 2014

Leading, Fast and Slow

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to say that the company aims to ‘move fast and break things.'  In a 2012 letter attached to the company’s pre-IPO filing to the SEC, he wrote, ‘the idea is that if you never break anything, you’re probably not moving fast enough’ and ‘moving fast enables us to build more things and learn faster.'  Zuckerberg at the time called the more general attitude guiding his company, ‘The Hacker Way,’ ‘an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration.’  The words capture what has increasingly become an article of faith in contemporary business: faster is not only better but necessary to gain and sustain advantage and possibly even to survive. 

Like much of the business and management thinking we embrace today, particularly around innovation, the Facebook example grows from the experience of start-ups, and more specifically that of programmers and coders, in technology.  (We could even arguably apply a broader term, ‘The Silicon Valley Way’ – whether actually practiced there or not – to make clear the benefits of going fast.)  Again, from Zuckerberg: ‘as most companies grow, they slow down too much because they're more afraid of making mistakes than they are of losing opportunities by moving too slowly.’  Cast at this level of generality, these are useful words for any organization seeking to grow and prosper.

The question less frequently asked is how leaders should put such an overarching imperative to work fast(er) into practice – particularly across different kinds of businesses and industries.

One sensible approach has been to break down the way businesses work, whether they are a start-up or in maturity, and assess the different stages.  In this way, Eric Ries’s LeanStartup movement looks closely at the product development process in order to eliminate unnecessary or wasteful practices and to prioritize value-producing ones.  Concretely, this approach translates into the faster development of offerings to address the needs of customers and the earlier release of what Ries calls a ‘minimum viable product’ to the market.  Ries’s work has had greatest impact on tech companies, with Dropbox, Intuit and the social learning site, Grockit, among those that publicly acknowledge their successful adoption of Lean Startup principles.  Speed here saves time and investment dollars by building on better customer feedback and performance indicators and by driving a development process that supports continuous (re-)deployment of improved products.

Speed throughout this process is essential.  Yet not all stages in the startup or general product development processes are necessarily equivalent, and as Roger L.Martin recently suggested, rapid, iterative prototyping may perhaps be the most vital.  While that doesn’t mean other stages, like advance research and metric formation or follow-up decisions, should be slow, it does raise the question about the optimal relative speeds of various stages of the product development or other processes.  A commonsense conclusion to draw is that every firm, indeed every product development or related process, is different and discrete stages of development should benefit from adaptable and often quick decision-making.  For Martin, reflecting on David Kelley’s pioneering design thinking work helping clients develop products at IDEO, such an approach has the potential benefit of delivering both customer value and a business client user experience.  To accomplish this, leadership must be capable of going both fast and slow (or, at least, slower) and of being able continuously to determine which pace is best when.

Business and management research and practice like that of Ries and of Martin offer valuable insights for enhancing those leadership capabilities.  Another, perhaps lesser-known voice here is John Sullivan, a talent management consultant and professor at San Francisco State, who has referred to himself as ‘Dr. Speed.’  He regularly blogs about the potential advantages of speed and even delineates 20 key components of organizational speed.  Smartly, these range from building a ‘culture of speed’ and integrating faster processes to measuring, rewarding and training for speed and change across organizations.

As a talent management specialist, Sullivan is particularly keen to highlight how the right people, trained to be fast, are critical to sustaining peak organizational performance.  His work brings to mind the example of Pixar, which is committed not only to expeditious learning but to bringing in ‘new blood,’ that is, to having the right talent in place to move quickly in achieving specific creative goals.  Sullivan’s lists of advantages and key components may, in fact, be most useful not as checklists to be pursued unqualifiedly, risking burnout or loss of morale, but more as bases for individual leaders to consider how best to incorporate speed customized to the needs and situations of their firms.  Slow may ‘kill organizations,’ as he puts it, but only the judicious acceleration and application of speed, with the right talent, to different aspects of business will allow them to thrive.

Better understanding the complexity of a startup’s or existing firm’s needs and how to use speed to address them is only part of the leader’s challenge.  Another is the deeper understanding of her or his own decision-making processes and the ways that speed shapes them.  Recent psychological, behavioral and neuroscience research have yielded some extraordinarily relevant results for leaders seeking to go beyond twentieth-century models of left brain-right brain thinking and to benefit from current approaches to cognitive processes.

Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling Thinking,Fast and Slow offers one such description of the two systems of the mind.  ‘System 1’ thought processes operate rapidly, intuitively, even automatically, and its decisions are based in immediate context, associative memories from our past, and emotional reactions.  ‘System 2’ thought processes are more deliberate, rational, and they require our effort to focus, pay attention and apply logic and evidence.  An important outcome of Kahneman’s five decades of work (much in collaboration with Amos Tversky) has been to undo the assumption that we humans are wholly rational actors and assess all the relevant information before logically making choices.  System 2 monitors and can override System 1’s inclination but that requires ongoing effort and energy we don’t always expend.  The relative speeds of the two systems, which give the book its title, also prompt Kahneman to be critical of System 1 decision-making.

In a very useful corrective, Scott Barry Kaufman and Jerome L. Singer argue that both systems or types of thinking styles have a range of positive and negative attributes to be recognized.  For example, while ‘experiential thinking’ (akin to System 1) is marked positively by empathy, spontaneity, emotional expressiveness, and intuition ability, it also has the negative attributes of naïve optimism, stereotyped thinking and unrealistic beliefs.  The ‘rational thinking style’ (System 2), meanwhile, possesses a positive worldview, realistic thing, self-esteem, and conscientiousness but is difficult to sustain and often has a dismissive style.  As they say, pointedly, ‘the key to both intelligence and creativity is the ability to flexibly switch between different modes of thought depending on the task demands.’  System 1 may generate various failures of reasoning and decision-making, in other words, but it also contributes to creativity – that which is both novel and useful.

Put differently, research shows that to be creative we need to be able both to concentrate intensely and engage current activities and to remain open-minded and notice our own conscious reactions.  Thinking fast and even breaking a few things, we might say, while still retaining some slowing awareness to ensure we move in the generally right direction.  For leaders, too, especially of creative talent, teams and organizations, such a balance of close engagement and meta-awareness, of speed and its intelligent, strategic deployment, seems essential. 

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