This summer, we spent two weeks watching the Olympics, admiring speed: the fastest runners, swimmers, tennis players. It's customary in business to imagine that the race is to the swift; Fast Company magazine famously celebrates speed as does Tom Peters with his 'Ready, Aim, Mantra.' I used to love speed too but, increasingly, I'm starting to wonder if fast is always the best way to do business. I've visited a number of companies recently that openly acknowledge they can be slow, but they think that makes for better, more considered, decisions. And now that I've read Frank Partnoy's marvelous new book Wait, I'm less inclined to hurry than ever.
One of Partnoy's great insights is his understanding that, in competitive sports, it may not be an athlete's overall speed that makes the difference, but how they use their time differently. Referencing Benjamin Libet, a physiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, he explains that great baseball batters aren't just faster hitters; their batting speed gives them more time to think about how they want to hit the ball. Great tennis players and baseball batters expand the time available to them to gather more information and to determine at what speed and angle to send the ball. We think of them as speedy but really, Partnoy concludes: "They are delay artists. They can react quickly but only do so when it is truly necessary."
The passion for speed in high frequency trading is, likewise, not quite what it seems. Partnoy demonstrates the degree to which even the software for these trades has had pauses written into it. "Technology consultants recommend that companies assess the trade-off between time and cost and make latency budgets," he says. "There is an optimal amount of delay. Not everyone needs to be faster."
Entrepreneurs almost invariably demonstrate a bias for action. We're highly responsive to signals we receive from the marketplace, customers, and employees. We can be competitive too, not wishing to cede ground to products that appear to be cheaper, better, smarter. But in the race to keep up, it's the easiest thing in the world to lose the plot: to be so responsive to everyone else's strategy that you fail to craft one of your own. If you bear Partnoy's learning in mind, you'll conclude that you want to wait, think--and, only when you know what to do--execute furiously.