Flowing through time: the need for a certain slowness

Sonja Blignaut
Dec 14, 2019 · 12 min read
Illustration by John Tenniel

It is exactly when one would think that being fast is what is required that slowness proves its worth.” — Paul Cilliers

We don’t often think of our lives as temporal and spatial flows. However, as we transition from birth to death, we age, we learn, we flow in and out of relationships, we move from place to place: we flow through time. Life is one great flow. It is curious then that we seem so pre-occupied with speed. We want everything to be not only fast but better yet instant. We want everything “on-demand”.

In business, in the so-called VUCA world, the mantra is also “go faster”. When I ask senior leaders why they’ve embarked on Agile Transformation processes, the answer I hear most often is “we need to be faster”. Agile teams (mostly Scrum) are under continuous pressure to improve their “velocity”, i.e. their ability to increase the amount of work they can deliver in the same amount of time.

As strategic agility is becoming the goal for most organisations, and Agile practices or New Ways of Working (NWOW) are spilling into the rest of our organisations, questioning this pre-occupation with speed becomes even more critical. In one organisation I work with, the need for speed is driving very disfunctional behaviours. Management has mandated that special teams need to deliver high-value products every 12 weeks. In a culture where failure is not an option and managers rule by fear, team members cannot raise concerns about unrealistic expectations and timelines. So they send in “the cannon fodder”, contractors who are expendible. This organisation has an extremely high churn in contractors, and many refuse to work their anymore. This need for speed has made an already dysfunctional culture, toxic.

While the efficient flow of value through our teams and organisations is necessary, the implied association of speed with efficiency has become problematic. We can be highly efficient and very fast, but if we never take time to slow down to reflect and learn, we will simply bring about our end faster.

Chronos vs Kairos time

At the inaugural Complexity in Human Systems symposium earlier this year in DC, Alicia Juarerro reminded us of the importance of time in complex systems. She highlighted the difference between Chronos (chronological or sequential) and Kairos (opportune) time. Chronological time is agnostic of context as it inexorably moves along. Kairos time, defined as right, critical, or opportune moments, is inherently linked to context. For each unique context, there will be unique Kairos moments. This begs the question: Are we missing critical Kairos moments as we seek to get more and more done, and speed up our flow through Chronos time?

How fast we flow through time then, should also be contextual, i.e. sometimes we do need to go fast, but sometimes we need “a certain slowness”.

I borrow that phrase from Paul Cilliers, whose article, on the importance of a certain slowness, has long been a favourite of mine. I think it is useful to reflect on some of his writing here (in italics):

“In his novel Slowness, Milan Kundera (1996) uses the metaphor of somebody riding on a motorcycle as being constantly in the present. Speed and the demands of the machine reduce his horizon to something immediate. Someone walking, however, is moving at a pace that allows for a much wider horizon. The stroll unfolds in time in a way that opens up reflection about where we are coming from and where we are going to as we walk. This theme of both the past and the future being present in a meaningful experience of the present … the argument for a meaningful temporality — that is, something slower — will be made here from the perspective of the dynamics of complex systems. “

“It should be stated up front that there is no argument against an appropriate fastness. A stew should simmer slowly, but a good steak should be grilled intensely and briefly. The argument is against unreflective speed, speed at all cost, or, more precisely, against speed as a virtue in itself: against the alignment of “speed” with notions like efficiency, success, quality, and importance.”

If we fall into the trap of unreflective speed, we may end up being very efficient at delivering products that offer no value. Also, making speed a primary measure of performance can have unintended consequences. Take the idea of team velocity again: Strathern’s variation of Goodhart’s law states that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. When speed becomes our target, quality and learning suffers.

In call centres, value statements like “customer first” are plastered all over the walls. But typically, call center agents are measured on efficiency and speed — how many calls they can handle in the shortest possible time. In a bank I work with, agents are given a performance target of limiting customer calls to 2,5 minutes. So if you’re the agent who gets the problematic customer, when it comes to 2 minutes 15 seconds, what will matter more: customer service or your performance bonus? Again, the focus on speed and efficiency leads to ineffectiveness and unintended consequences.

While innovation is often linked to speed and being disruptive and “first to market”, innovation and delivering sustainable business benefit is often short-circuited by the pressure of unrealistic timelines. I recently spent time with the Executive leadership of a new unit, created (or incubated) within a large corporate with an innovation mandate. They were expected to completely disrupt the very established and highly competitive short term insurance market and given a very short time horizon in which they had to show a profit. This pressure completely paralysed them. Instead of taking the necessary risk, the unrealistic targets made them overly careful. When they did take a chance, time pressure often led to them abandoning their ideas prematurely before they had time to prove their value. As any farmer knows, seeds take time to sprout, grow and bear fruit. The same is true for business ideas. This short-termism, driven by the need to show quarterly results undermine innovation and sustainable growth in many (if not all) public companies.

The tyranny of the moment

“The way in which contemporary society lives in an eternal present, or what Eriksen (2001) calls the “tyranny of the moment,” is made possible, and augmented, by the surge in technology, especially computer and telecommunication technology. We are instantaneously in contact with everybody, everywhere. Not only has the distinction between home and the workplace collapsed, but also the distinction between work time and private or leisure time. It is expected of many of us to be available, always and everywhere. This state of affairs may have been less detrimental if it did not also demand instant response. The very reason for mobile phones and email lies in the fact that immediate response is possible. It is in this “immediate” that the main problem lies. There is less and less time for reflection. Reflection involves delay, and in a cult of speed, delay is unacceptable.

As part of the culture work I do in organisations, I gather and make sense of hundreds of anecdotes of people’s experiences. In virtually all my projects, there are emergent themes linked to burn-out, lack of work-life balance and inhumane work environments. An acquaintance who works in a clinic that is situated near the head offices of three of our large banks told me that they deal with so many burn-out cases that they’ve named these symptoms after the originating banks (“BankA-itis” looks slightly different than BankB-itis”). And this happens in organisations whose number one espoused value is typically something along the lines of “we care about our people”.

Another friend is a business coach who works with very senior C-suite executives. Recently she was told by two clients, who don’t know each other, how disturbing they found it that they had to “pay for empathy”. What kind of dehumanised organisations are we creating in our when efficiency is all that matters?

As a response to increasing work pressures, many have turned to mindfulness and meditative practices. Predictably though, these also need to fit into our speed-obsessed culture: if a meditation or exercise isn’t short enough to fit into our busy schedules, we’re not interested. The same with learning, if something can’t be done in a one-day (or even better half-day) workshop, most companies aren’t interested.

This reminds me of the famous marshmallow experiment where children’s capacity for delayed gratification was tested: they could have one marshmallow immediately, or two later if they were able to wait. Nowadays I think most of us would fail that test: we consume fast food; we have movies- on-demand and binge-watch our favourite series because we simply cannot wait a week between episodes. It seems we’re all living in the tyranny of the moment while ironically becoming less and less present in it.

On memory and complex systems

“An important aspect of complex systems, one that certainly complicates our understanding and modeling of such systems, is their temporal nature. Complex systems unfold in time, they have a history that co-determines present behavior and they anticipate the future. Moreover, as we know at least since the work of Prigogine, the behavior of complex systems is not symmetrical in time. They have a past and a future that are not interchangeable. This being “situated in time” does not always receive adequate attention in our analysis of complexity.

The central notion at stake when we talk of time and complexity is that of “memory.” Memory is the persistence of certain states of the system, of carrying something from the past over into the future. It is not merely the remembering of something in the past as if belonging to that past, it is the past being active in the present.

If one characterizes memory as the past being carried over into the future, it follows that the future can only be anticipated in terms of the memory of the system. Anticipation is not, or at least should not be, simply an extrapolation of the present. It is a complex, non-linear process that tries to find some trajectory, some way of “vaulting” from that which has already been experienced to that which has to be coped with. The quality of the anticipation is a function of the quality of the memory. A more varied, richer, deeper, and better-integrated memory will open up more sophisticated anticipatory capabilities.

The point is that a system that has carefully accumulated the relevant memories and experiences over time will be in a better position to react quickly than one that is perpetually jumping from one state to the other.”

Like Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen’s Race (illustrated in the headline image by John Tenniel), many organisations seem stuck in a cycle of churn without ever achieving any real change.

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Carroll, Lewis: Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, Chapter 2

I often ask workshop participants how many restructurings they’ve been through in the last year. Most of their answers are something along the lines of: “I’ve been through 2 in the last 6 months, never mind a year!” In organisations where a habit has formed of continuous change (seemingly) for the sake of change, people become severely “change fatigued”. Also, the changes that are made a never given time to make a real impact. Before we can see if a restructuring had the desired impact, we restructure again. If we take the gardening analogy again, the absurdity becomes apparent. No gardener would plant seedlings and rip them to plant new ones before they have time to flower or bear fruit! This constant churn, reminiscent of Carroll’s Red Queen sacrifices not only forward momentum but also the accumulation of deep memory that facilitates change resilience in our organisations. It is also extremely demoralising. I believe this is a big contributor to the shockingly high statistics of staff turnover, absenteeism and disengagement in our organisations.

Distinguishing signal from noise

“Memory is information from the environment that has been filtered, it is that which has been interpreted — by the memory already sedimented in the system — as significant. The identity of the system is, in some sense, its collection of dynamic memories. The implication is that the system cannot reflect, or act on, everything that is going on in the environment at a given moment. If that were the case, the system would always be merely a reflection of its environment and would have no identity of its own. In order for it to be a system at all, a system that has its own identity, that can react to the environment and not merely mirror it, a certain hysteresis is required. The system must be slower than its environment.

The system has to hang on to some aspects with a certain tenacity: not let go of them too quickly. There is risk involved in this, of course. The system has to invest resources in this process. It cannot maintain everything; it has to select. If too many of the wrong things are carried over it will impair the system’s performance. However, if not enough is carried over, it will also fail.

To put it in slightly different terms: The system has to find a way to discriminate between information and noise. If it follows every trend in its environment, it will also be following noise. If it reacts too slowly it will only follow the low-frequency trends, which may also be just noise. The system must be stable enough not to be buffeted around by every fluctuation, and it must be flexible enough to be able to adapt when necessary.

Jack Welsh famously said: “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” We often use quotes like this to justify the need for agility (I must admit I’ve used this particular one myself). But if it is true that a system can only survive and maintain its identity through constant reflection and wise selection of what to respond to and what not to; changing as fast or faster than the environment is not a sustainable strategy. If we never take time out to think deeply about where we’ve come from, where we are now and where we are going, we run the risk of losing the very DNA that is our competitive advantage. Also, if leaders in organisations have no time to read, learn and cultivate diverse networks, how will they know what to pay attention to? John Boyd, a brilliant military strategist and the creator of the OODA loop stated that it is not only speed that matters, but sometimes “accurate perception” is just as important, if not more so. This means that advantage comes not only from speed, but the ability to Observe and Orient to the current context in a way that is most coherent with reality. While speed ultimately does matter, especially in disrupting our opponent’s ability to orient, acting faster based on incoherent orientation will lead to our own irrelevance or destruction faster.

“It must be stressed again that the argument for a certain slowness is not a conservative argument. A certain amount of conservation is a pre- requisite for a system to maintain itself, of course. The important point, to which we shall return, is that a “slow” strategy is not a backward-looking one. If a somewhat slower tempo allows a system to develop a richer and more reflective memory, it will allow the system to deal with surprises in its environment in a better way. The argument of slowness is actually an argument for APPROPRIATE SPEED. There is no objective or immediate rule for what that speed is. If anything, it is a matter of experience, and experience (as Aristotle urged) has to be gained, it cannot be “given” in an immediate way. It is experience that determines which piece of meat should be fried quickly and which should simmer slowly in the stew. She who fries everything quickly will only have something nice to eat now and then, and then purely by chance.

We need to cultivate a healthy respect for the Restraint/Action paradox

Leaders and decision-makers in complex systems continuously need to navigate the tension between the risks associated both with practising restraint and taking action. On the one hand, if the context requires it, one may need to consciously practise restraint and create space that allows for the emergence of ideas, trust, opportunity, and even epiphany to loosen tangled problem knots. Like sowing seeds and waiting for the seedlings to sprout and grow, it takes time to allow emergence to unfold. On the other hand, one needs the courage to take action in a mist of uncertainty because, in a complex system, the consequences of our actions are never entirely predictable. No matter how good our knowledge, there is never an objective “right” decision. Being conscious of (and comfortable with) this paradox is critical to successfully fostering and practising adaptive leadership.

References:

Cilliers, F. P. 2006. On the importance of a certain slowness. Emergence: Complexity and Understanding 8:106–113.

Rogers, K. H., R. Luton, H. Biggs, R. Biggs, S. Blignaut, A. G. Choles, C. G. Palmer, and P. Tangwe. 2013. Fostering complexity thinking in action research for change in social–ecological systems. Ecology and Society 18(2): 31. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05330-180231

Sonja Blignaut

Written by

Enabling Responsive Organisations http://www.morebeyond.co.za/blog/

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