Slow progress

How to take the time to stay relevant.

The Untangler
9 min readMay 5, 2021


All illustrations by Celeste Caiello

Staying relevant seems like it’s getting harder. The pace and scale of change — socially, economically, technically — is increasing every day. Of the 100 companies in the FTSE in 1984, only 33 are still trading.

Business models that used to be sacrosanct are disappearing left and right. Big corporations seem to get more fragile by the minute. They’re seen as slow to react, bogged down in legacy projects, beset on all sides by ‘disruptors’, with markets and audiences and whole industries dying and being born anew every time you look up from your laptop.

Who could possibly hope to stay relevant in a world that moves at this pace? It takes six months just to hire a decent CFO.

But staying relevant doesn’t mean keeping pace with everyone else — it means slowing down, listening more, and finding the value that’s already there.

Take a breath

“It’s not about stopping — it’s about approaching the problem differently and knowing when to slow down and when to go fast”— Dominic Quigley, Tangity UK

How many of your people have Headspace on their phones? Or practice yoga? Or take some other specific time away from their screens and calls? Chances are it’s most of them.

They don’t do it to stop thinking, or veg out, or distract themselves. They’ve learned that a pause, a step back to put things in perspective, helps them to think more clearly when they get back to it. We all instinctively know the value of that. But we find it almost impossible to get a business to do the same thing.

One of the hardest barriers to overcome is the notion that every change has to be monumental, the idea that stopping is the same as stalling. It can make even the smallest pause seem cataclysmic.

“The faster you rush towards a goal, the narrower your focus becomes. Take time to access the full landscape to open up opportunities.” — Dominic Quigley, Tangity UK

You don’t have to drop everything to think about making changes — you just need to commit to budgeting some clear, uninterrupted time to do it, and make sure you get a broad range of people in your team. Not just once, but as a regular part of everyday working life. There’s a reason Google gives every employee 20% of their hours every week to think about something other than their work — it’s how Gmail was invented. People reached out from their silos, talked without delivery pressure and cut through everyday red tape to get it done, because they’d been given time to do it.

Microsoft switched to a 4-day work week and saw a 40% jump in productivity.

When was the last time you gave your staff time to think about what they do, instead of just doing it? Or yourself, for that matter?

Noise isn’t information — it’s more of the same

“We’ve learned how to tune out noise from our everyday lives — meditation, exercise etc. — but most companies haven’t.” — Benjamin Hobson, Tangity UK

One of the downsides of the information revolution is that every publisher, consultant, data company etc. has learned how to appear relevant, and can dress their services in the clothes of urgency at all times. But there’s a reason countless providers are busy advocating data capture at every level, and that’s because it’s easy to grab hold of and harder to use.

Market data, customer data, sales data, performance data, operations data — most modern companies have data pouring in from every direction. It can be harder and harder to hear the signals that might truly affect your sales, market share or growth, because they’re being drowned out in a barrage of noise.

Staying relevant isn’t a matter of knowing everything — quite the opposite. It’s about cutting out everything that doesn’t help, and reducing extraneous noise to a minimum, so you can hear the voices you need to hear. Your customers, your staff and your own.

Listen carefully

See if this scenario feels familiar: you’re sitting behind dark glass in a research company, watching a breezy researcher give 10 of your customers some cheap white wine, before asking them questions about an ad you’re hoping to run. You’re nursing a significantly nicer glass of wine, wishing you weren’t here at 7.30 pm, when someone from the advertising agency sighs and says ‘I knew she wouldn’t get it.’ He’s referring to the talkative one of the group, who’s busy persuading the rest of the group why your latest idea won’t work. Someone else says ‘I hate these people’ and you laugh along with everyone else.

It’s a nervous laugh. These scenarios provoke fear, because they represent an unknown. Your customers aren’t idiots, and no-one really hates them, but the fear that comes from seeing how your product really gets used, or thought about, reveals just how complex people’s lives really are.

The way to reduce that fear is to listen more carefully, more often. One characteristic of some of the most successful businesses in recent times is how specifically and frequently they listen to their customers — not as an afterthought, but as a central pillar of their culture. Amazon, Tesla, Airbnb — they’re entirely focused on their audience, how they behave and what they need. They don’t farm that work out to third parties to produce flattering results, or reduce that process to a series of summaries or checklists — they have real conversations with real people, all the time.

When did you last spend time with a customer without trying to sell them something, where you could just hear about their lives?

Hire your customers

Diversity in business is a heavily loaded term, one that’s been battered and bruised in the brawl of modern political debate. Leaving the political aside for a moment, it’s worth asking a simple question. If you took 10 people from your audience and 10 people from your company and put them in a room, would they get on? Would they have anything in common?

“If you you limit your staff’s ability to challenge and disagree, you’re slowing your business down’ — Kate Grey, NTT DATA

One of the best ways to make sure that you’re keeping your customers close is to hire people that know them, that have sympathy with them, that understand their lives. Why hire a third party research agency to tell you how they feel if your staff can do it instinctively?

So don’t think of diversity as a purely political or social exercise, valuable though that can be. Think of it as a listening strategy. A way to bring your business and your customers closer together.

Expectations change, but needs don’t

There’s no doubt that customer expectations have changed hugely over the past 10 years. Whatever your product or service, people expect to find it fast, choose it fast, get it fast. Stripping out all unnecessary barriers to digital delivery and a fast customer journey is a fundamental that many companies are still tripping over.

But getting that right doesn’t mean you have to throw everything out and start again. People’s needs haven’t changed. They just want to get them met as fast and cheaply as possible with the minimum of fuss, through the channels they use most often. The simpler you can make that for them, the happier they’ll be.

Dollar Shave Club understood that perfectly. They didn’t re-invent the razor, or add more blades. In fact, they opted out of the product arms race altogether. They listened to their market, looked at the biggest pain point, and solved it. Get them to me faster, get them to me cheaper, and don’t hold me hostage. They sold to Unilever for a billion dollars.

When was the last time you looked at your typical customer’s journey, or tried to take it yourself? Does that journey serve them best, or you?

It’s free to look around

If you decided that you wanted to build an extension on your house, or visit Belize for the first time, or do anything that felt like a big step away from what you normally do, the first thing you do is just stop what you’re doing for a while, and go take a look. Just step into the back garden, or open a browser window, try the idea on for size.

Doesn’t take a lot of time, doesn’t cost anything.

There’s no reason you can’t do that for your business either. Just step outside for a while, take a look around, kick the tyres. Try to take a look from the outside in.

The ability to see your company as part of a wider ecosystem, one that has thousands of seen and unseen touchpoints in your staff and customers’ lives, is free.

How often do you give yourself a chance to do that?

One step leads to another

The tiniest acts of progress can be infectious. By reducing noise, taking a step back and changing perspective, the simplest tweaks reveal themselves, and can pay huge dividends.

Airbnb failed to launch four times. And every time, they went back for more investment, and kept trying to code their way out of the problem. They were a website, right? So if they just made the website better…

One of their investors gave them permission to stop doing that, and recommended talking to some customers. Not to look for common themes, or things they could scale, but to hear specifics. Individual stories. What one person liked about the service and another one didn’t.

And it led them to the realisation that transformed Airbnb — trust. Until they talked to people, they’d had no idea of the hesitation, the doubt and the concern that left people on both sides hovering over the button, unsure whether to commit. It was about the trust that’s required to let a stranger into your house, or host you for the night.

So they took the service apart, and re-designed it to foster trust. Made owners and hosts more visible to each other. Made it easier for them to connect. Made it easier to reserve without committing. Which led to better maps, better itineraries, and all the website transformations they were trying to do blind the first time around. Not to mention world domination, the disruption of the entire hotel industry and a very healthy bank balance.

You control the pace

So while the world spins ever faster, and the noise grows ever louder, it’s tempting to try and match that pace. But if you can’t control it, why worry about it?

What you can do is take the time to step back from the everyday, find some time to be silent, to look and listen to your business and customers from the outside in. To hear the voices that might otherwise get drowned out in the cacophony of daily work. To see the one loose bolt that’s slowing things down.

You might find that a change in perspective is all you need to stay relevant.



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