Some of the best advice I ever received was packaged in this eight-word statement: "Speed is your enemy; momentum is your friend."
It is counsel anchored in a simple idea-- that while we crave forward motion, it is the forward part, in the truest and fullest sense of the word, that we need most of all. The motion part, the part about speed and obsessing over it, and the part we tend to treat with undo reverence, is secondary and supporting. It's a critical distinction leaders too often miss.
Moving forward is a many-faceted desire. Progress, growth, evolution-- it's all part of the same forward movement we as business owners crave, indeed need for both our survival and our psyche. But people often confuse advancement with acceleration. Trouble is, a focus on speed doesn't get us any of those things we crave. It's not what we really need either, especially in uncertain times.
What you need to know is what fuels the advancement we seek and how to attain it. Believe it or not, the fuel and the means of attaining it boils down to the same thing: learning to practice noticing.
The Power of Practiced Noticing
A dozen years ago or so, I heard the renowned documentary filmmaker Ken Burns speak. He centered his talk around three people who without question advanced the world in their time and changed the way we think-- specifically about democracy, about literature, and about architecture. The three individuals were Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
At first blush, the three distinct areas of human pursuit represented by these three individuals have little to nothing in common. And yet, Burns argued, the three individuals did: they were all tremendous at noticing.
On the surface, Jefferson, Twain, and Wright all appeared to live lives characterized by tremendous speed. That impression resulted from their exceptionally productive outputs-- innovative ideas, voluminous achievements, and, in many cases, wide, deep, and lasting impact. Each played a key role in the revolutionary changes of their time.
But that apparent speed and their more celebrated talents veiled the more important trait they shared. Each consciously practiced the skill of noticing. All developed the habit of deliberately pausing to take time to see the shifts around them, to experiment with new ways of doing, and to recreate and reinvent as a matter of habit.
Noticing did not always or automatically result on progress. No doubt, some of it led directly to forward motion, but really it was the habit over time that mattered most of all. The pace in the immediate varied in speed, and sometimes even took them back a step or two. But in the end, it was noticing that was the difference maker in moving forward in striking, powerful, advantageous ways.
Confusing Momentum and Speed
People often confuse momentum with speed. Consider the organizations you know. Think about the leaders within them, maybe including yourself. Then acknowledge the substantial, often disproportionate energy dedicated to "bigger, faster, and cheaper"-- all elements most closely aligned with speed.
But what about the forward part?
When they work, "bigger, faster, cheaper" can be great. Temporarily. Maybe. The trouble is, each assumes a steady state environment. In such relatively stable conditions, it's not surprising that organizations focused on developing efficient systems built for speed.
The real goal, however, is forward progress, ongoing, and far into the future. And when the world isn't a steady state (which it never really is), that progress depends on skilled noticing-- of changing conditions, of changes in assumptions, of new opportunities, and of those opportunities that have fallen away. In a rapidly shifting world such as the currently unprecedented one we live in, a singular or disproportionate focus on speed becomes the unintended enemy. Practiced noticing is the true advantage.
Starting to Notice
In 2017, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon was asked, "Do you ever feel the pace of change is out of control?" His answer spoke volumes. "Once upon a time," he began, "companies like ours made big strategic changes on an annual or quarterly basis. Today," he said, "it's daily." He said he even jokes with other leaders that it's hourly.
Though we are loath to admit it, then or now, speed only gets us so far-- especially in a world that can change with the hour. Such a world requires not only skilled noticing but that every single person in an organization practices this skill as a matter of habit, as a matter of collective strategy.