Slow Business

I just finished reading a very interesting book on ‘Slow business’ written by Pierre Moniz-Barreto (*) and it reminded me how important it is to manage time in the right way in business. Too often we confuse speed and haste while it is important to give time to time. The title of the book is paradoxical: it is not about doing business slowly, it is about doing business rightly by incorporating the notion of time in management (tempo giusto = the right time).

I took away a few ideas from my reading:

More haste, less speed

Yes, the world is changing and getting more and more complex; the overall economic environment is tough and fragmented and competition gets fiercer. All reasons not to rush, all reasons to step back and dedicate time to strategic activities which will help you go in the right direction:

Time for analysis and planning. With new technologies we are overwhelmed by data that are directly accessible to senior leadership in real-time and we let ourselves be under the pressure of immediacy, sometimes acting like in a ‘shoot-them-all’ video game. Putting things in context, confronting ideas, working out different scenarios, etc. are all useful steps into the future.

It is not about making decisions; it is about making the right decisions. And taking a bit more time for preparation will certainly save time in the execution phase.

Time for creativity. Innovation is essential but it flourishes often along the path of serendipity. By definition unexpected (and disruptive) ideas cannot come while you are ‘wrapped’ in the day-to-day rush times but will rather pop-up when your brain is free to think with no pre-conceived paradigm. You need to encourage moments conducive to innovation. Unplug and take the time to get away from day-to-day to-do lists. Moniz-Barreto advocates for « getting out » (décrochage) like doing off-site brainstorming sessions with no interference from the work/office environment, ideally with « zero technology ».

Slow and steady wins the race

Your business (especially in services sector) will always benefit from not exhausting your resources by forcing them to rush and jump hurdle after hurdle. We are too much under the tyranny of speed and urgency. How often do we use the words ‘urgent’ and ‘asap’ without really questioning whether and why it is really urgent? By doing this we keep our teams under constant pressure with the risk of exhausting them and lose the sense of true urgencies. The hectic pace is maintained (accelerated?) by continuous requests for reporting/budgeting/re-forecasting which brings us in a never-ending cycle of ‘commenting’ rather than ‘doing’. It is good to step back with teams and spend as much time as needed to make sure they understand the strategy and adopt it. By doing this, you will build capabilities to grow your business in the long-term : sustainability (sustainable growth and profit) is the name of the game. Business is a marathon race, even though it may be needed (sometimes even crucial) to accelerate in different moments (when you introduce innovations in the market for instance or when you want to pre-empt a new geographical territory).

A (false) paradox of 1. and 2. is that if you have spent time to prepare decisions and have your teams mentally ready for action then you are able to speed up in execution.

Eliminate toxic time

Your agenda is packed, you feel you are busy? Too much time spent in useless meetings with no clear agenda nor objectives. Too many interruptions in your day due to real-time email alerts and too much time wasted for reading many emails where you are uselessly on cc (guess why?). Too long working days then you lose clarity and energy, you lose the sense of priorities, you put more pressure on your health and it creates tension and frustration, etc. Forget about all this and (re-)create free moments in your agenda to work on your priorities, connect with people or just be free. I like the idea of (apparently) ‘losing’ time to relax and open creativity spaces. I often think about new ways of doing things while I am running outdoor.

Encourage flexibility

Moniz-Barreto refers to the book by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, ‘Let my people go surfing’: No need to stay at your desk 8 hours a day, 5 days a week with same fixed hours for all staff. You do not really care about how many hours your people will spend at their office desk, you care about what they will achieve. It connects with the concept of ROWE (Results-Oriented Work Environment) which was initiated at Best Buy a decade ago. It also connects with one of my favourite topics : Accountability. I believe in empowering people then holding them accountable for achieving results and meeting objectives. I often use a metaphor from nightlife: it is important to define clearly the limits of the dance floor (clarity on strategy, clarity on objectives, clarity on rules) and then let your people dance! In a given paradigm (the approved budget for example) managers and staff members will make decisions and act to achieve agreed goals and they will be judged and rewarded based on results. Then no need to create heavy complex reporting machines: you let people work in a flexible way (flexible hours, flexible desk, etc) and let them deliver.

Moniz-Barreto suggests we move from control (you cannot control everything anyway) to mastery where you create the conditions for success: you will not succeed because you have put in place hundreds of control gates and approval procedures, you will succeed if you have the right strategy and the right people, if your people are strong and motivated enough to deliver properly. It suggests to move from micro-scrutinizing every detail at every single step to a world of trust, delegation and « big picture ».

It is also about the importance of combining short-term and long-term horizons, tactics and strategy. It is definitely important to generate growth and profit in the short-term, but as enablers of long-term plans rather than goals per se. Business leaders are quite often assessed only on short-term results while it would be more relevant to combine short-term performance with long-term vision (investment and innovation for the future, people development, transformation and change management, etc).

Of course speed matters. Of course control is necessary (when I was in the French Navy we were used to say: « Trust does not exclude control »). It is a matter of balance.

I already apply some of these principles in my own practice and I feel better aligned with my long-term objectives, both from a business perspective (grow the business I am responsible for, build strong capabilities for the future) and personal angle (work-life balance).

Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano.

(*) « Slow Business: Ralentir au travail et en finir avec le temps toxique » by Pierre MONIZ-BARRETO. Editions EYROLLES (2015)

Time is precious… Waste it wisely!

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