Demystifying collaboration (pt 3): Speed

Emerging and evolving reflections on better ways of working together

Myth #3: Collaboration is too slow

The constellation Vulpecula, Latin for ‘little fox’, is around 1,000 light years away. This means whenever we look up at the little fox in the night sky, what we see are the light from stars shining down solar events that happened around 1,000 years ago. And light is fast. It travels at 671,000,000 miles per hour.

One star in Vulpecula is not just any old star. PSR B1919+21 is a neutron star; the result of a huge supergiant sun with a scale, mass and luminosity many times greater than our own Sun, exploding into its last evolutionary stage. Such ‘supernovae’ events create light brighter than an entire galaxy of hundreds of millions of stars, and their explosions can last several months, creating new elements or even new stars in the process.

What remains after such an explosion is the collapsed dim core of a once great sun. In respect to stellar objects generally, they can be both tiny and fast. In the case of PSR B1919+21 it’s just over 12 miles in diameter, meaning you could hypothetically use London’s M25 ring road motorway to drive around it. If you think that still sounds huge, as comparison our sun is roughly 100 times larger in diameter than the entire Earth. Likewise, each ‘day’ on PSR B1919+21 is just 1.33 seconds long, compared to our own 86,400 seconds (or 24 hours).

Beyond the sheer immensity of astronomical awe created by merely imagining how a neutron star is (re)born, PSR B1919+21 also has a relatively mundane but noteworthy claim to fame here on planet Earth. Through Harold Craft’s original visualisation and Peter Saville’s artistic rendering, the radio pulses it generates, emitted like a lighthouse as it rotates, were turned into the cover artwork of Joy Division’s 1979 album Unknown Pleasures.

The cover of Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures. The image is a stacked plot of the radio emissions given out by a pulsar, aka a rotating neutron star.
Unknown Pleasures © Peter Saville

Martin Hannett, the legendary Factory Records producer of Unknown Pleasures, once gave what might be the most esoteric artistic direction ever when, during a studio recording session, he suggested “play that again, only this time make it faster, but slower.”

If a neutron star like PSR B1919+21, 16 million years in the making and 1.33 seconds in the spinning, had a motto, I’d like to think it would be something along the lines of “faster, but slower.

When we think about investments of time, we need to consider not just the timespan of events themselves, but also their corollary effect. From the perspective of judging an action solely in the moment it’s performed, the act of collaboration is undeniably slower than individual decision-making. But if an individual decision made later gets misinterpreted, challenged, or not followed through to its full potential, how effective has that investment of time really been? How fast is the decision, truly?

Perhaps collaboration is a great example of investment in the future at the expense of the present.

Enforced decisions, however well-meaning, tend to create ‘consensus debt’. Not unlike technical debt, consensus debt is a trade-off between efficiency and effectiveness: The ‘cost’ of potential future reconsideration of a hasty decision is traded off for more speed now. Consensus debt builds every time a decision previously made is challenged, or executed ineffectively. If we accept the notion of consensus debt, we’re therefore not necessarily moving faster by making quicker in-the-moment decisions, we’re just pushing delay into the future by sacrificing consensus on the altar of speed. Friction, as a result of such lack of consensus, will arrive at some point, sooner or later, it’s just a matter of when, rather than if.

‘Slower’ acts of collaboration can therefore have more enduring outcomes over the longer term than rapid decisiveness in the moment, since the longevity of a decision taken as a group becomes more resilient.

This is not because the decisions taken are necessarily better (although collaboration generally bestows that co-benefit too), but because there is a consensus that this conclusion was reached fairly. Any potential controversy, fallout or rework behind whether a decision was ‘right’ or not is minimised. There is no “one throat to choke”, if you’ll forgive the graphic colloquialism, as well as none of the dysfunction that comes with such a reductive and ‘blame-centric’ view of accountability.

But in a complex world where the best way to learn is by doing, is there really anything to gain through a process that makes doing slower?

Firstly, in an era where the motto “Move fast and break things” has already broken so very much, we should avoid placing such blind faith in our individual ability to learn from our ‘experimentation’ so rapidly as to be able to counter any unintended negative outcomes that resulted in their execution. “Sorry” just isn’t good enough. We need to be more actively anti-harm.

Another key benefit of collaboration emerges from the accumulation of diverse perspectives with which to cross-examine our individual biases, blind spots, or lacunas. We’re then able to move forward with more confidence that such mistakes are never intentionally made, or at the very least considered and mitigated with as much due care as humanly possible.

Collaboration therefore doesn’t slow us down as such, rather it helps us build momentum and future-proof our progress.

A photo of the sail-backed tortoise emblem of Cosimo I de’ Medici’s Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, painted by the artist Giorgio Vasari.
The sail-backed tortoise emblem of Cosimo I de’ Medici’s 16th century Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, symbolising the motto ‘festina lente’ or “make haste slowly” Photo © Sailko

This journal is an ongoing exploration into collaboration as part of School of Systems Change Basecamp. It won’t be static and will be added to over time. If you have opinions on this topic, especially anything that challenges or adds to these thoughts, please do comment or connect. I’d love to hear from you.

So far these thoughts have been informed by conversations with Sean Andrew (Forum for the Future), Richard Wood (The Ready), Will Higham (Rethink Mental Illness), and my learning cohort at School for Systems Change. However, all opinions are my own (and may not be theirs).

If you also have any experience of workplace collaboration, here’s a survey too. Thanks for collaborating! 🙌

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