Have you noticed how speed has become something of a diktat these days — in our personal lives, and even more so in business spheres? We’re increasingly urged to accelerate processes and delivery. To think and act faster, be ahead of time, and beat others to the finish line.

This is all well and good. Speed certainly has its value. But what of the benefits of careful consideration and long-term thinking? Can business leaders remain poised and level-headed when moving at the speed of light? Let’s weigh the pros and cons.

The Case for Speed

Let’s first play devil’s advocate. The reasons why speed has gained such importance in business value scales are numerous and compelling. First of all, it goes hand in hand with digitalization. Machines and programs don’t have the same hinderances and limitations as humans do. They literally “run” around the clock, achieving amazing results at an amazing pace. So we have to keep up. When one can do the work in a matter of hours or even minutes, it somehow feels wrong to take days to make a decision, doesn’t it?

Besides, business competition is indeed something of a race. When delays in production prevent you from marketing your new star product by holiday shopping time, competitors gain the value goes that you lose. No one wants to hire a consultant or an accountant who’ll spend their afternoons meditating to find inspiration: clients would rather go with a partner who may be less inspired, but who delivers faster. A case in point is the so-called COVID-19 vaccine “race”. Ask French pharma group Sanofi, which had to abandon research on its mRNA-based vaccine although work was well under way, because the dominant position of faster-to-market players made yet another vax redundant.

Being a laggard is not precisely an attractive prospect to anyone. Then, what can be wrong about trying to speed up decision-making, to accelerate execution, to minimize development cycles and time to market?

Wait a Sec…

So, granted, keeping up with the competition and with the fast-evolving expectations of ever more demanding consumers and markets is an imperative. But this does not mean that going at “breakneck” speed has suddenly become a good idea.

One could argue that the number one value and purpose of a business executive or leader is their ability to shape a strong vision and to bring people together around it. Unfortunately (or not), visions just don’t grow on trees. Coming up with a good one takes strategic and creative thinking — which automation probably won’t come for anytime soon. It is usually recommended to explore different paths in order to test your intuitions. This all takes time, and trying to accelerate the process artificially may just lead you astray.

Similarly, communicating your vision and engaging people takes time and effort. Change management is actually a great illustration of the proverbial “Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano”. If you’ve ever tried to bulldoze your employees into switching to new ways of working overnight, you probably know that it doesn’t really work that way. The same can be said of building a brand or business reputation: unless you’re inspired enough to invent the next iPhone or compose the next Gangnam style, the rise to prominence can take its sweet little time. Long story short, the need for business speed should at no rate cause you to throw long-term thinking and strategic planning down the drain.

As far as execution is concerned, getting ahead of yourself and trying to go too fast can lead to dramatic errors. Ask the guys who lost a NASA orbiter in space because of a basic math mistake: taking the time to perform a thorough second check may have saved their firm a cosy $125 million.

It’s Not About Speed – It’s About Agility

We could probably go on for a while trying to delineate the fine line between “good fast” and “too fast”. But, in practice, this is often a matter of common sense. What is not necessarily so obvious is the realization that speed is often confused with distinct yet related notions: responsiveness and agility.

When management books or speakers urge you to “start failing faster”, they don’t mean that you should be looking forward to feeding on instant noodles because your shiny start-up went kaput. What they probably mean is that you should embrace any opportunity to learn, evolve, and adjust. In the digital age, the ability to adapt to ever-changing conditions rapidly and to face dramatic upheavals with a cool head is a real business differentiator. In a number of business contexts, “agility” is what people really mean when they say “speed”. You just need to read between the lines.

Responsiveness and agility do indeed involve a speed dimension. It’s hardly Agile to sit on your hands while deciding on the best course of action when the world around is falling apart. However, scurrying around at full speed without really knowing where you’re going is not agile either (contrary to some common misconceptions). It’s not about speed for speed’s sake.

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Benoît Boitard

Benoît has multiple professional experiences, working in particular as a digital strategy consultant, both in emerging start-ups and in large companies. These diverse experiences have imbued him with a global vision of project management in traditional and agile working environments.