Going Slow to Go Fast

July 25, 2012

Legend has it that during World War II, Navy fighter planes had a watch embedded in the steering column – not to help the pilot keep time, but to help save his life.  You see: the first step in a pilot’s emergency response process was to wind the watch.  It may sound crazy, but Navy psychologists had proven that the split second required for a pilot to wind the watch was enough time for him to clear his head of distractions and to focus instead on the emergency at hand.  The one second spent winding that watch bought him considerable time, enabling him to react in a more logical, coherent way.

In today’s business world, we are all so busy, so stretched, so overcommitted, and so inundated with information, that we sometimes forget to wind the watch – to focus on what’s important and create space to accomplish our ultimate objectives…

That concept struck home for me last month during our 25th annual conference and celebration, when an attendee of one of the pre-conference workshops came up to me and offered a simple, yet powerful comment.  She mentioned that she really appreciated our offering half-day workshops as a part of the event, in that they allowed her to go deeper into the content, creating time for absorption and reflection, and enabling her to really internalize the material.  She remarked that, while she had heard much of the content before, this time it “seemed to really stick” – light bulbs were going off like they never had before.

In short, she appreciated the time to slow down and think.  Which got me thinking…in today’s fast-paced work world, maybe there’s wisdom in slowing down.  I know that it’s counterintuitive, as shorter and faster is usually preferred over longer and slower.  After all, today is all about quick communication: email, social media including 140-character Tweets, webinars instead of conferences, speed dating instead of the real thing.  We’re all just so busy.  Therefore, quicker decisions, quicker action, quicker resolution allows us to move on to other things.
Today, speed reigns.

But speed also kills.

Frank Partnoy, a professor of law/finance at the University of San Diego and author of “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay,” summed it up in an HBR article published July 13 (“Act Fast, but Not Necessarily First”): “The crush of technology forces us to snap react.  We blink, when we should think.  E-mail, social media, and 24-hour news are relentless.  Our time cycle gets faster every day.”
He continues by declaring that, as decision-making accelerates, long-term strategy becomes even more crucial, and that those who find time to step back and think about the big picture – even for a few minutes – will have a major advantage over those who knee-jerk react.  “If everyone else moves too quickly,” he says, “we can win by going slow.”  He believes that humans – leaders – are often better off resisting biology and technology by managing delay.

Partnoy references a military strategy, similar to winding the watch I mention above.  A decision-making framework developed by military strategist John Boyd decades ago is still being used by many military (and business) leaders today.  It’s called the OODA model, simply the acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act.  Its premise is basically allowing your enemy (or, in business, your competitor or other third party market forces) to go first, and then quickly react to the situation.  It’s about not necessarily being first (with a product, a process, a technology, or what have you), but being the fastest at responding to changing market conditions (and “market” can be external or internal to the organization).

Obviously, you can see the advantage this creates in war.  In many ways, America won the Revolutionary War because we let the British “go first” in revealing their strategy, and then we used unconventional warfare to surprise and attack their weaknesses.  On a smaller scale, you can see this even in a fighter plane dog fight: if you allow your enemy to “show his hand” by moving left, for example, you go right and create space to maneuver, to avoid his fire, or to create a clearer shot for yourself.

As Partnoy indicates, the ultimate goal of OODA is not being first, but instead having a fast response, which requires slowing things down up front so that you can move quickly when ready.  That philosophy works in other setings as well.
One of my childhood heroes was George Brett of the Kansas City Royals, the Hall of Fame third baseman (probably as famous for his pine tar tirade as his 3000+ hits, his flirtation with the milestone .400 batting average in 1980, his 13 All-Star appearances, and his 1985 World Series championship).  Brett was what many would call a “pure hitter” – similar, in many ways to Joe Mauer today.  He had a natural swing and was incredibly comfortable in the batter’s box, especially during critical moments of the game.

But he revealed years after his retirement that the secret of his hitting success was in his ability to see the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, and in a split second – by observing the velocity and rotation of the baseball stiches – determine what type of pitch was being thrown.  Are you kidding me?!  Brett – and I imagine many of the other hitting greats – could actually see the quarter-inch red stitching on a three inch baseball some 60 feet away, oh, and travelling some 95 miles an hour at his head?  I guess that is what separates the good from the great in major league baseball.  But it also illustrates a key point here: in doing so, Brett was able to delay his swing by milliseconds but adjust with the “right” swing given the pitch that was being thrown.  In essence, he slowed down to speed up.  And he is still considered one of the top dozen or so best hitters to ever play the game.

Most of you aren’t in the military or professional athletes, but the same philosophy is true in running a business (or a hospital, a school, or a nonprofit).  If a leader acts too quickly – without first understanding the situation, gathering all the information, and analyzing the impact and implications of a decision – then the decision may sub-optimize the outcome.  (As I Tweeted last weekend during the final round of the British Open @LassiterBrian: “In golf, you’d rarely make a putt without first reading the green.  So why make business decisions without first getting all the data?”)

Here is the four-phase OODA framework, as translated by Partnoy, and with my commentary added beneath each step:

1. Observe – According to Partnoy, the first step of any good decision is to take in information.  What are opponents doing?  How are they superior or weaker?  Are there relative drawbacks to your product or service?

My sense is that this step may be the hardest, but also the most important for effective decision-making.  Remember to wind the watch: before proceeding with any of the other steps, take a moment to observe what you see in your marketplace, your workforce, your product quality, emerging competition, possible new regulations, and any other factors that are changing in your environment.  Despite how busy we all are and despite the urge to move forward quickly, take the time to gather the data.

2. Orient – According to Partnoy, once you have gathered the relevant information, the next step is to process it and position yourself for a decision.  This step requires becoming aware of the implications of what you are seeing.  How important are particular strengths and weaknesses?  Where is the open water?
My sense is this step is also difficult when faced with time pressures.  It’s easy to skip the analysis, to go with intuition or partially-considered implications and rush to action.  After all, most organizations reward quick response and a sense of urgency.  Don’t do it.  If you take the time to analyze the situation and consider all the implications that the data are telling you, then you will increase your chances of making the “right” decision, saving you considerable downstream time – not to mention avoiding the potential waste that is created by making the wrong decision and having to correct.

3. Decide – According to Partnoy, once a manager has gathered information and understands the key questions (who, what, when, and where), it is time to make a choice.  Notice that this step is distinct from action: it is purely mental…the moment right before implementation.

I think it’s important to note that this step is about making a deliberate decision, based on the data and analysis done in the first two steps.  It’s about putting a stake in the ground and declaring what action(s) are forthcoming; it also may involve sharing that decision – communicating – to stakeholders who need to know what direction you have decided to take.

4. Act – According to Partnoy, every businessperson understands the importance of execution. Once a decision has been made, it should be implemented in the most efficient, straightforward manner.  Don’t look back.

I think it’s important to note that this fourth step, while the last in this framework, is not the final one: the process reverts back to step one, observing.  Once you’ve implemented a decision, measure the effectiveness of that implementation and of the decision itself.  Did it work?  Is it having the desired response in your marketplace, with your workforce, in your operations?

The quality professionals reading this will quickly note that OODA is very similar to PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act), in that decisions should be based first on data and observation, tested in a small scale, then implemented on a grander scale.  What PDCA explicitly espouses that’s not as evident in OODA is the concept of testing – starting small, gauging efficacy, adjusting, and implementing on a larger scale.  But what OODA espouses that’s not as explicit in PDCA is the deliberate observation-orientation-decision chain – really, the decision-making process itself – that managers should go through to arrive at the best decision.  Both methods are right; both methods can be useful.

I’m quite certain that time won’t slow down for us anytime soon: expanding technology will continue to facilitate and accelerate information and knowledge exchange, and organizations will continue to place a premium on quick decisions, fast response, and a sense of urgency.  But heed the wisdom of John Boyd, of our navy fighter pilots and their watches, and of George Brett: avoid the tendency to impulsively react.  Instead, take time to gather data, analyze the situation and potential implications, make a deliberate decision, and then confidently take action.

Yours in Performance Excellence,

Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)