Should you operate at top speed all the time?

“Straight line” speed is helpful in certain contexts but doesn’t really allow you to respond to a constantly changing environment very well.

When I was playing hockey as a youngster I always assumed I was supposed to skate as fast as I could all the time.

Eventually, a coach taught me that variation in speed was much more important and useful than going as fast as I could all the time. If you’re always going at a constant speed, even if that speed is fast, it isn’t hard for a similarly skilled defender to cover you. On the other hand, if you could accelerate and decelerate quickly you became much more effective. Not only were you harder to defend because you could play more creatively, you were less likely to get out of position, and less likely to burn yourself out over the course of a game.

For many of our clients the prevailing assumption seems to be that productivity equals operating at top speed all the time. Power walk from one meeting to another meeting to another meeting. Whip through a fifty slide deck in thirty minutes. Have a working lunch at your desk. Dash off some emails as you power walk to more meetings. Fast fast fast fast fast — forever.

It’s not sustainable and it’s not effective.

What would it look like if variation was accepted, or even encouraged, in your organization? That having an afternoon with no meetings wasn’t a sign of slacking off or being cut out of major decisions, but a time to slow down and think creatively? Or that a crazy sprint under deadline wasn’t the standard way of working but an atypical tactic utilized — and heartily embraced — only when truly needed?

Complex organisms, whether 13 year-old hockey players or 40,000 person corporations, are not designed to operate at top speed forever. Take a breath, slow down, and you might be surprised by the creativity you can unleash.

This was originally written as the introduction to an edition of This Week @ The Ready, a weekly newsletter about org design and the future of work. Subscribe for a weekly dose of insights, ideas, and provocations about better ways of working.