Managing fast and slow in a world that keeps accelerating

Managing fast and slow in a world that keeps accelerating

When it comes to competitive emailing, Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of marketing services group WPP, sets the bar high. Send him an email and he will probably reply within minutes.

When your boss sets the pace of work at warp speed, you will be expected, presumably, to match their haste. Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, routinely tells his employees that their success depends on replying to emails the same day.
But is fast always good in running a business? What do you need to do slowly? And how can you simultaneously manage fast and slow?

We have no choice but to match our own pace of work to the demands of a superfast globalised business world, argues Sir Martin. “You have to be responsive; you shouldn’t attempt to fight it or slow the pace down.”

The increasing emphasis on short-term results from global investors demands speedy action. “It’s better to have a suboptimal decision on Monday and take advantage of being the first or second mover, than to take the time to gestate and have a superior decision on Friday,” he says.

Though he enjoys the pressure to keep up with instantaneous communication, he laments its attendant superficiality. “Things are done quickly without as much thought as may be advisable,” he says.

Tamara Heber-Percy, co-founder of boutique travel business Mr & Mrs Smith, agrees that the relentless acceleration of technology has made every second count. “If your app doesn’t load in four seconds, then that customer is gone,” she says. The feeling of needing to be constantly on your toes has been exacerbated by social media, she adds.

We are indeed under pressure to do things more quickly and many of us work hard to answer every request as fast as possible, says Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School.

“The dominant rhetoric is of accelerated change,” he says. “And because the rate of change in the outside world is perceived to be getting greater, the assumption is that we should do so on the inside, too. Sometimes this creates problems, for example email traffic for its own sake.”

Every business needs both fast and slow, he adds; the problem comes when there is too much of one and not enough of the other. “There are two different speeds underlying any business but some organisations default to fast and some to slow. You have to go out of your way to change that speed.”

Ms Heber-Percy has learnt first hand the merits of both fast and slow management. Established in 2003, Mr & Mrs Smith has 110 employees and three offices worldwide. Like any new venture, it started at an adrenalin-fuelled pace but has slowed as it has matured.

“With this amount of people relying on you, you can’t go at the breakneck speed of a start-up,” says Ms Heber-Percy. Decisions need to be well thought out because the business can no longer afford to make the kind of mistakes — especially technical ones — that a start-up might tolerate.

“Slow makes fast happen,” she says. “We do things fast but well for our customers because the technology has been well thought out. We can surface the right information at the right time.”

Regularly stepping back from the fray means serious thought can be given to the strategic direction of the business. One of Ms Heber-Percy’s regrets is that the company did not create an advisory board sooner. She and her colleagues were reluctant to take on advisers from the very industry they were trying to disrupt but, “it should have been about slowing down and listening to people who have experience”, she says. Time-consuming mistakes could have been avoided.

Sarah Wood, co-founder and chief operating officer of UK marketing technology company Unruly, agrees that business should not always be done as quickly as possible. “We’re a high- growth business but it’s not a 100 metre sprint, it’s a marathon,” she says. “There are moments when you need to do fast but planned agility is paramount.”

This means that, like Ms Heber-Percy, Ms Wood regularly takes time with her co-founders to plan and build business structures that allow rapid and tactical decision making.

Finding the right speed for a business at any given point is difficult. While start-ups are in danger of burning out or missing big strategic opportunities because they cannot slam on the brakes, many large companies, mired in bureaucracy, are too slow to innovate.

“In terms of managing fast and slow, it is challenging indeed, as my inclination is always to want things to be done fast; however, some things just take time,” says Dessislava Bell, founder of UK sportswear company Zaggora.

Ms Bell says her company’s speed is dictated by the customer. If customers are waiting for a response or a product is running out, she expects immediate action. “Other stuff, like strategy planning, does take longer and is something that should not be rushed,” she says.

Speed control is often about managing the short term and the long term. In 2008, Unruly’s founders decided that half the business’s time would be spent on immediate client opportunities, and half on projects with more distant horizons. Ms Wood admits it created conflict within the business, not least with the sales team.

“It is always difficult to turn down revenue,” says Ms Wood, “but there is always a balance to be struck. You have to take the time to think slow in order to move fast.”

Another area in which managers should consciously incorporate different paces is people development.

“If people are happy you will get the most out of them,” Ms Heber-Percy says, but this only works if you spend the time to get to know them. “Certain people need more space and time to do things.”

She regularly organises days out of the office for various teams, most recently an away day for the tech team, who rarely leave their desks. Ms Wood advises taking the time to hire properly: “It’s very time consuming to move people out of the business.”

Ms. Heber-Percy also helps give her team slow time to do a job properly by protecting them from some of the business’s pressures. “As a manager, you need to take the plunge and have the confidence to push back. Rushing never really pays off.”

But there are, of course, times when the focus and speed created by time pressure are desirable. Ms. Heber-Percy’s current bugbear is meetings, which she is determined to speed up. “They have too many people, are too long and suck the life out of you,” she says.

Bigger, longer-established companies must also focus on setting the right pace. Does Sir Martin, for all his talk of the primacy of speed, ever make sure he tempers the pace in his working life? “Yes I do — on planes and holidays and weekends,” he replies.

Further reading: Setting the tempo

Miranda Kennett, an executive coach at First Class Coach, advises businesses to: Establish your “golden time” and then police it. When is your brain sharpest? What do you do at that time? Before a meeting, take three minutes to consider its purpose, the order of the agenda and how much time will be allocated to each point. Use a slower pace for creativity. It is difficult to achieve excellence on demand. Use “slow time” for employee development. Take time to really listen to what is going on so you can help. This is not time-consuming but time releasing.

By Emma De Vita
January 14, 2015