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Slowing down to speed up

This bit of insight is hard won.  I’m remembering the first night in our new country home and I am lying on a camp bed looking at the cracked ceiling.  It’s 1:30am, my body is rhythmically bouncing in time with music emanating from the ‘disco’ at the pub next door but one.  Yes, we had bought a house very close to a pub.  But this is a small town, in the rural West of England; it’s not Soho or Times Square or Lan Quai Fong.

My husband and me had fallen for the house.  Fallen for the golden dream of our life in this small town – and we wanted it now.  Despite all the information waiting for us on the internet; our desire to act got in the way of even thinking about ‘due diligence’.  “A bit of noise as people sit outside in the summer evenings,” I said to the cracked ceiling, replaying our pre-purchase conversations.

We had acted to make our dream come true, but the peace and quiet of the English countryside was further away than ever.

‘Same but different’, it’s something we see a lot in our work.

‘We need to have more senior women, so let’s introduce a women’s development programme’.  ‘We have to cut costs and increase productivity, so we’ll take 5% off the budget and add 5% to the goals.’ ‘We need to collaborate more, so let’s have some cross-team strategic projects and matrix reporting.’

Often the solutions are good in themselves and will go some way towards achieving the goal.  In businesses where decisiveness and speed of response are valued, a feasible, well-crafted solution can be very welcome.

However, from what our clients tell us, too often in the past they have acted swiftly to resolve an issue, but are actually “solving the wrong problem”.  Looking at the data a few months, or longer, after implementing the solution and the expected improvement hasn’t happened.  “We often apply sticking plasters to an open wound” one client said recently.

Five indicators that you may be rushing to solutions

1. “Groundhog day” – new day, new solution … same problem!
The first indicator of fixing the wrong problem is that the underlying issue remains untouched.

One client described how they introduced unconscious bias training to improve gender balance in senior levels.  Feedback about the programme was great, and people reported that they behaved differently.  The proportion of women in their senior positions remained the same.  So, they implemented a women’s development programme.  Feedback was great, participants reported feeling more confident, and 360° feedback measures changed positively.  However, the proportion of women in senior roles remained unchanged.

2. Unintended consequences
The second indicator is that the solution has unintended consequences at odds with the desired outcome.  I remember the story of a town council in India with a snake problem.  Their solution was to pay for every snake people brought into them.  They gave away a lot of money to a lot of people for a lot of snakes – until they realised people had started breeding snakes just to get the money!

In our experience, ‘the wrong measure’ often triggers an unintended consequence.  Another recent story we heard was about a ‘pay for performance’ initiative intended to improve ‘client centricity’.  People were rewarded for giving a technically correct outcome to the client – unfortunately it turned out to frustrate them and decrease their loyalty to the supplier.

3. “I could have told them that!”
The third indicator is ‘real feedback’, usually informal and typically not heard by the people who most need to know.  It’s the chat round the coffee machine, in the bar after work or on unofficial message sites.  The new piece of kit, technology, process or procedure has just arrived in people’s lives, on their desks or their in-trays – and how is it received?

The wrinkle in the workflow or process map that means the solution takes insufficient account of how and why people work the way they do.  So, instead of saving time and money, people spend it finding ways of ignoring, part implementing or working around the new solution.

4. Myths and blind wisdom
These are the things that are so important and engrained in ‘the way we do things around here’, that people don’t notice when they run counter to new, communication and procedures about ‘this is what matters’, and rather carry on as they have before.

Typically, blind wisdom is impervious to challenge because emotionally people haven’t heard it.

5. Activities not outcomes
The final indicator of rushing to fix the wrong problem is that lots of activity masks a slow down in progress towards achieving the outcome.

One client described how he and the global project team had given his direct reports a new project plan, with workstreams, objectives and KPIs.  Yet, despite his clarity and determination, his leadership team was “not taking responsibility”; documents were going to and fro, decisions made and unmade.  As he tried to move the work from planning to making changes across different the regions, resistance increased, progress was getting harder, and timescales stretching.

Slowing down to speed up – five things you could try

So, if organisations are often rushing, and ending up solving the wrong problem, how can you refocus the time you spend to solve the right problem, the right way?

1. Get curious
A very interesting story is that if you put a frog into a pan of water and bring it to the boil – the frog stays in it and dies.  However, if you try to put a frog in a pan of boiling water – it jumps out immediately!

How much do we not notice about the world we live in?  Typically, we take so much for granted in order to prevent our brains from exploding with data overload.  However, it can mean that we hold untested assumptions, miss opportunities to learn or make different choices.

Perhaps, when you next catch yourself disagreeing with someone, ‘check your challenge’ and instead get curious … “Could you say more about that?” … and really listen to what they say!

Often in meetings, people trade high-level statements, reaching agreement fairly easily, and feel good that ‘progress has been made’.  Then later feel frustrated, wondering why the other person has done something different!

In our experience, slowing down – and yes, it can mean people roll their eyes at first – and asking people to explain more about what they just said, unearths fresh information that creates a strong foundation for real agreement.

We use the Advocacy and Inquiry model, or “Push and Pull” model, as a way of exploring this.

  • What is the balance of Advocacy and Inquiry in how you communicate?
  • Does it vary in different situations?  Or with different people?
  • What about meetings – what is the ratio of Advocacy to Inquiry?

Noticing and then sharing – without judging – some informal data about the balance of the two styles can help build awareness of how people are working together.

We find that a balance of both styles is most effective.  Too much Advocacy and people are talked over and get cross, quieter people tune out, and valuable information is not shared.  Too much Inquiry, and the conversation lacks direction, and difficult topics are ignored because the trust required to safely explore tough issues is missing.

Paying quality and sustained attention to what appears a simple model can transform the quality of conversations, team dynamics and results.

2. Tune into what (really) matters
My husband is a plumber and a gas fitter.  Late one Friday night, I expressed my irritation as he headed out to another customer.  He simply said “but I want to make them warm” and I shut up!

In our experience, people are energised and achieve more, when they are motivated by something greater than themselves.  And it can take time, experimentation and reflection, to surface and become clear about what really matters.  Finding ways to share it with others, and bringing it to life for them, creates a true emotional connection that can inspire and foster a different mindset and behaviours.

3. Engage everyone affected – ‘the whole system’
People are five times more committed to something they have input to.  And yet, it’s often easier and quicker to rely on a familiar group of people we know will have something useful to say – possibly because they largely think like us.  The upside?  This coalition, our ‘tribe’, gives us energy and motivation – especially in the tough times!

The risk however, is that we could be missing out on significant allies and important information.  Our suggestion is to review the ‘go to’ people you talk ideas through with, ensuring they include:

  • All the influential groups and people
  • Known resistors and cynics
  • People from outside your team and function, customers, and suppliers.

Get curious if you feel a reluctance to engage any of them – ask yourself why?

This is different to asking people what they know, and perhaps inadvertently taking on board their problems.  These conversations are reflective, exploratory and about building mutual understanding and solutions.

4. Change the energy
We all know when something feels hard, when it’s ‘going against the grain’.  And we also know what it’s like doing something challenging, when it is going well, and it ‘took on a life of its own’.

Two of the most common and most unhelpful ‘truisms’ around change are that “it’s hard” and “people don’t like change”.  In our experience, many new strategies and change initiatives are set up to make it hard, and ensure people won’t like them!

Too often they are implemented predominately ‘top down’, with a ‘command and control’ leadership style often disguised as inclusion.  Because none of us like being told what to do, people withdraw or resist.

Our suggestion is to pay more attention to your own energy, your teams and across the organisation:

  • What and who is boosting energy?  What would capitalise on that?
  • How could resistance become rocket fuel?

5. Take a break!
Our final suggestion is to very deliberately step back from your day-to-day and look at it as if from afar.

Returning from holiday, I can ‘see’ me in my working world very clearly.  I understand the influence of different relationships on what I am trying to do and know what I need to do differently.  And then I start catching up with backlog of emails and meetings.  The feeling of being ‘in it’ returns, my vision becomes short-term, perhaps even myopic.

Regaining the clarity of the farsighted perspective could be as straightforward as having a conversation with a colleague, perhaps someone from a different area of the business who you know as a strategic thinker.  Or, sometimes I physically ‘map’ my situation at work on flipchart paper, with mini post-its representing people, challenges, opportunities and draw in lines to represent relationships between them.  Done over a coffee, a glass of wine, or with a colleague it can be a 30-minute holiday!

Slowing down to speed up – in real life

We hope this has been food for thought, action and results!

Put simply, working with clients in this way we have achieved deeper more sustainable results and faster.

Recently Donald Trump has been firing off Executive Orders, intent on achieving his goals quickly, and we are seeing a society and its accompanying systems, procedures and people reacting in many and diverse ways.  It feels the opposite of ‘slowing down to speed up’, and a very live case study.  Perhaps, something to revisit in a few month’s time – as commentators are already pointing to a number of emerging unintended consequences.

If you would like to have a conversation with us, perhaps about a situation you are experiencing now, please contact Caroline Sharley or Lynn White – we would be delighted to hear from you.

Or, read about how the Claims leadership team in Swiss Re ‘slowed down to speed up’ and delivered a market differentiating commitment to customer service.

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