Slow is smooth, smooth is fast

Quickly check the emails. Send a few chat messages on the side. The technical possibilities tempt us to condense our time more and more and rush through the workday. But is faster always better?

Final­ly, a work­shop in per­son again. I pre­pared all the equip­ment for the marsh­mal­low chal­lenge. And as a bonus, mate­r­i­al for the can­dle prob­lem, which I had nev­er tried in a work­shop before. The box was ready to hand on the dress­er in the hall­way. Before that, I did two meet­ings at the home office, and in the fol­low­ing gap in the cal­en­dar, I planned to go to the office. I checked my bag with my lap­top and the inevitable chaos of cables just before leav­ing the house. I remem­bered my water bot­tle, some snacks, and even my com­pa­ny ID. Cell phone in hand to answer a quick inquiry on chat, I left the house, got in the car, and drove to the office. Almost, any­way: short­ly before I reached my des­ti­na­tion, I noticed the box was still on the dresser.

Instead of 25 min­utes, my com­mute that day was just under an hour, and I arrived at the office and at my work­shop in quite a hur­ry, which start­ed late any­way because the flight of some par­tic­i­pants had been delayed. But I was still more stressed than actu­al­ly nec­es­sary. “Mul­ti­task­ing means mess­ing up many things at the same time,” wrote the Swiss jour­nal­ist and pub­li­cist Erwin Koch and thus apt­ly described the just pun­ish­ment for my haste (by the way, the short chat mes­sage between door and door was also mis­in­ter­pret­ed, and there­fore devel­oped into a rather lengthy thread).

My some­what longer com­mute is annoy­ing, but no one was harmed. It’s a dif­fer­ent sto­ry on Navy Seal mis­sions, where any care­less­ness can endan­ger your own life or the lives of oth­ers. And although speed can some­times be cru­cial to the suc­cess of a mis­sion, rash action, fueled by a good dose of adren­a­line, can be very dan­ger­ous in com­bat. A fun­da­men­tal guid­ing prin­ci­ple of this U.S. Navy spe­cial oper­a­tions unit there­fore is:

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

The point is to find and main­tain the appro­pri­ate speed. This seem­ing­ly para­dox­i­cal phe­nom­e­non, that slow but steady can be fast and suc­cess­ful, is already found in Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tor­toise. And a Japan­ese proverb says: “If you are in a hur­ry, go slow­ly. If you’re in an even big­ger hur­ry, take a detour.” Even in the race between Scott and Amund­sen for the first suc­cess­ful expe­di­tion to the South Pole, the team that lim­it­ed its speed to a sus­tain­able lev­el won, as Greg McK­e­own points out in his book “Effort­less”:

On Decem­ber 12, 1911, the plot thick­ened: Amund­sen and his team got with­in forty-five miles of the South Pole, clos­er than any­one who had ever tried before. They had trav­eled some 650 gru­el­ing miles and were on the verge of win­ning the race of their lives. And the icing on the cake: the weath­er that day was work­ing in their favor. Amund­sen wrote, “Going and sur­face as good as ever. Weath­er splen­did — calm with sun­shine.” There on the Polar Plateau, they had the ide­al con­di­tions to ski and sled their way to the South Pole. With one big push, they could be there in a sin­gle day. Instead, it took three days. Why? From the very start of their jour­ney, Amund­sen had insist­ed that his par­ty advance exact­ly fif­teen miles each day — no more, and no less. The final leg would be no dif­fer­ent. Rain or shine, Amund­sen “would not allow the dai­ly 15 miles to be exceed­ed.” While Scott allowed his team to rest only on the days “when it froze” and pushed his team to the point of “inhu­man exer­tion” on the days “when it thawed,” Amund­sen “insist­ed on plen­ty of rest” and kept a steady pace for the dura­tion of the trip to the South Pole.

Greg McK­e­own in (McK­e­own, 2021, p. 134)

Let’s be hon­est: Who would­n’t have tried to push them­selves and the team to the extra mile in this sit­u­a­tion? I try to squeeze some­thing into my already over­crowd­ed day almost every day: A meet­ing here, a quick call there, and on my way to the car, a few chat mes­sages. A lit­tle more is always pos­si­ble. And there is more than enough to do anyway.

Being busy is impor­tant, but it’s not always that effec­tive. In the hec­tic pace, mis­takes hap­pen, and mis­un­der­stand­ings arise, lead­ing even more hec­tic. To break this vicious cir­cle, one needs phas­es for reflec­tion and sus­tain­able improve­ment of the way of work­ing. That is why suc­cess­ful agile teams take enough time for ret­ro­spec­tives and take to heart this prin­ci­ple behind the Man­i­festo for Agile Soft­ware Devel­op­ment, which is often over­looked in the hec­tic pace: “Agile process­es pro­mote sus­tain­able devel­op­ment. The spon­sors, devel­op­ers, and users should be able to main­tain a con­stant pace indef­i­nite­ly.” That’s what helped Amund­sen and his team win and survive.

Slow does­n’t mean idle, but on the con­trary, work­ing on things that mat­ter in the long run. The task is to step out of the ham­ster wheel and think about whether the ham­ster wheel is still the appro­pri­ate tool. It means imple­ment­ing mea­sures to pre­vent fires instead of rush­ing from one fire­fight­ing mis­sion to the next fire­fight­ing mis­sion. It means work­ing on the sys­tem, not just in the sys­tem with the sta­mi­na of Götz W. Wern­er, whose life mot­to was: “Per­sis­tent in the effort, mod­est in expec­ta­tion of suc­cess.” This slow­er work, aimed at sus­tained improve­ment, pays off in the long run, as Dan Heath demon­strates with numer­ous exam­ples in his book “Upstream,” which is well worth reading:

An inch at a time, and then a yard, and then a mile, and even­tu­al­ly you find your­self at the fin­ish line: sys­tems change. Be impa­tient for action and patient for outcomes.

Dan Heath in (Heath, 2020, p. 235)


McK­e­own, G. (2021). Effort­less: Make it eas­i­er to do what mat­ters most (First edi­tion). Currency.

Heath, D. (2020). Upstream: How to solve prob­lems before they hap­pen. Ban­tam Press.

Title pho­to by David Dib­ert pub­lished on Pex­els.

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