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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