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Friday, September 01, 2020

Raising the (Business) Speed Limit

There are times when eager technophiles miss the point about whether or not devices like BlackBerries and cellphones are a cause of worsening work/life balance. Take the article by Dan Farber on August 25th 2006 on ZDNet. He pretty much dismisses the possibility that always-on connectivity to your place of work could be a problem. Here’s how he sees today’s trend towards organizations raising the pace of working and expecting their people to stay in touch all the time:
It's as if the speed limit were raised from 55 mph to 75 mph, and companies expect workers to meet or exceed the upper limit. A faster pace doesn't necessarily mean more work; it can mean more productive work and faster results, especially if a company has good policies around collaboration, such as not copying everyone on every email. However, working at 50 mph in an environment moving at 75 mph isn't going to be sufficient to stay in synch with the pace of business.
Let’s look at his analogy with speed on the road, because I think it’s a good one.

Raising the speed limit generally causes everyone to drive faster. You don’t have to increase your own speed, but if you don’t you’ll likely be constantly harassed by everyone else. You’ve probably experienced what it feels like on the freeway to have an eighteen-wheeler bearing down on you at 80 mph, flashing his headlights and blaring his horn for you to speed up or get out of the way. That happens in the work environment too. If one person is working steadily at a modest pace while everyone else is rushing around in some manic state, at the very least the “slow” person is going to get some hard stares and snide comments directed at them. Besides, does a faster pace typically mean “more productive work and faster results” as Mr. Farber claims?

If one person is working steadily at a modest pace while everyone else is rushing around in some manic state, at the very least the “slow” person is going to get some hard stares and snide comments directed at them.
Let’s go back to the vehicle analogy. Does driving faster get you where you want to go more quickly? Is seems that it should, but we all know things don’t always work as they ought to.

High-speed driving, like high-speed working, needs special skills and a vehicle capable of being driven safely at high velocity. Sadly, many drivers have more appetite for speed than they have the skill to handle it. And if pressure from other drivers forces them to go faster than they know they should, you can add increased anxiety and all the ills of tension to the list of drawbacks. There’s nothing like knowing you’re driving way too fast to make any journey exhausting and nerve-wracking. Driving a car faster than the engine and bodywork (and brakes) can cope with greatly increases the chances of skids, rollovers, and other dangers such as tire blow-outs. High-speed roads are highly dangerous places to be, especially when the weather is bad and there is rain, ice, or snow on the road surface. It’s well understood that when everyone drives faster, it increases the number of accidents, as well as the severity of the consequent injuries, even in good weather.

Many managers have far greater confidence in their ability to handle large workloads and high-pressure environments than is deserved.
Business is very similar. Many managers have far greater confidence in their ability to handle large workloads and high-pressure environments than is deserved. The “vehicles” they are driving—their personal skill sets and past experience—may be as shaky and prone to breakdown as any old clunker of a car you might see being driven too fast on the Interstate. And the business environment, like the road surface, may be full of potholes or covered with rain and ice.

It’s easy to claim that going faster gets you where you want to go more quickly. But that assumes that every driver is fully capable of handling the higher speed, every car is in tip-top mechanical condition, and the road surface is dry, smooth, and free from obstacles like bits of tire and wooden planks that fell off a truck. In the real world, you are more likely to encounter some testosterone-fueled idiot in a flashy sports car, who imagines his driving skills are way better than they are, and considers slowing down in bad conditions a sign of being a sissy.

There are managers who can barely cope safely with the workplace equivalent of 50 mph without crashing and burning, let alone 75 mph.
Ever encountered a testosterone-fueled manager similarly trying to impress the world with his he-man status and going way beyond his capabilities to do so? I’ll bet you have. There are many managers who can barely cope safely with the workplace equivalent of 50 mph without crashing and burning, let alone 75 mph. And if those who stand to gain most financially from raising the general speed of operations get the idea that faster is better, why stop at 75 mph? Why not push everyone to drive at 100 mph, or 150 mph? If more crash and get killed, who cares? They probably weren’t very good drivers anyway.

That is exactly the attitude of too many organizations today. Going faster doesn’t naturally increase productivity or bring faster results, unless you count more accidents as an increase in productivity. Besides, when you’re hurtling along, clutching the wheel because you’re terrified something awful is going to happen, you’ve no chance to look around you or enjoy the ride. That too is becoming almost universal. By living at breakneck speed (literally), you’ll flash through the ride of life and never get to enjoy it—even if it doesn’t end in a pileup. Not even the latest model cellphone or BlackBerry will help with that.

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4 Comments:

JKB said...

There does seem to be a almost irresistible trend toward operating in crisis mode. Flat out at full speed with no thought to the long haul. This is directly related to the previous post on myopia. If you do not look to the future, you cannot husband your resources and efforts to be able to meet the continuing demands.

I've seen this often in freeway driving. The traffic barrels forward until it is bunched up in a wad. Many do not seem to even be aware of the blockage ahead until they are forced to brake or zipping from lane to lane to advance a car length. But looking ahead, you can set a steady pace in the empty road between wads of cars. Many times laying back for a few moments you see the wad clear and can easily pass to slower traffic. Other times you can ride in relative peace without the stress of constant jockeying. All the while your saving fuels by running steady and giving yourself space to react if the cars ahead collide.

Working at high speed just like driving at high speed leaves you few options, in fact only one, to slow down, when something changes. There is little left to increase the speed and trying to turn takes a lot of time and effort all the while you progress toward the danger. If your speed is moderate, you can shoot ahead, turn or slow. In driving as in business, options and flexibility are necessary to deal with changing conditions.

7:01 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

You've got it absolutely right, JKB. Well said. Going flat out at full speed leaves you very few options, and no time to think about them either. That's why so many people find themselves repeating automatic responses from the past: they have no time or space to consider anything else. It's madness.

7:15 PM  
Bill Ramos MSFT said...

I'm not sure that the freeway analogy is the best. I prefer boating because there are no set paths to travel. At high speed, it's hard to correct your path unless you get constant feedback on along the way. The next thing that happens is that you run aground and get stuck.

Given that very few employees get the negative or positive feedback that they need to stay on course, going fast with “crackberries” isn't going to make things better. For managers that don't deal with things with nuclear in the job, I can't see what is so important.

Instead, I see a "tool" that makes meetings go slower because of inattention and nonparticipation. I see a "tool" that does little to improve network building and human interaction. I see a "tool" that does little to help provide feedback or help a manager delegate better. I see a "tool" that interrupts ones precious time with their family.
Cheers,
Bill

9:32 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Good analogy, Bill. Thanks. I've never been boating, but I can see exactly what you mean.

7:38 AM  

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