Fast Gets all our Attention. Slow Has all the Power

Attention and power

If you're a futurist of strategist you're in the business of widening your perspective. This is useful for seeing better into potential futures, but it's also a powerful thinking tool for understanding what got you (or your client/company) here.

This is important and often overlooked: what got you here, won't work (as well) or be sustainable in the future. It's valid when you go from individual contributor to manager as it does to go from today's success to tomorrow's.

There's a reason why this is hard to imagine and even harder to do: Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power. Stewart Brand explained how it works in The Clock of the Long Now, one of the 3-5 books that sits on my office shelf for constant reference. His/their work is a consistent source of value.

Life and work go hand in hand in the order of civilization:

Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. 

Understanding how what works, works can make a big difference on the likelihood you'll be able to leave a legacy. If your work is important enough, it won't be completed during your lifetime. But you can create so much value through your work that it transfers to people centuries after you're gone.


How small tests innovate

I officially posted a test here in September 2006. You can still see “test” in the URL. I forgot to change it when I published. I doubt anyone has been reading for 14 years. You may have noticed an article at some point that got your attention, dipped in and moved on.

The initial fashion of blogging has since turned into new fashions of various social media channels. But because I'd been blogging every day for months and years before many of the social fashions came about, I never confused the infrastructure parts of what I was building—parts in a body of work—with the fashion of testing concepts and ideas.

3,375 articles later, I have a consistent track record, literally, of what I've been thinking about and experimenting on. Versions of what worked made it into my day job as commercial programs and campaigns. I iterated on what didn't work. Sometimes you're ready, and the market is not… and vice versa.

I kept the governance part transparent—see the link sharing / contributed articles policy and the comment policy and social guidelines on the sidebar, and the commitment to share useful resources dating back to the very first post.

Writing and publishing consistently helped me become more self-aware, connect ideas in retrospect, and work on my craft—writing and thinking. There's a tremendous amount of craftsmanship that goes into making a truly new product.

I've enriched many jobs and clients in the last 14 years. And this has remained a reliable lab for testing throughout. It's helped me think and do fast and slow. Continuity is critical to creating good mindset and habits, which form and inform culture.


Operating at different time scales

Mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson made an observation about human society that can help you grasp what working at different time scales involves:#

The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales.  To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales.  But the unit of survival is different at each of the six time scales.  On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual.  On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family.  On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation.  On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture.  On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species.  On a time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet.  Every human being is the product of adaptation to the demands of all six time scales.  That is why conflicting loyalties are deep in our nature.  In order to survive, we have needed to be loyal to ourselves, to our families, to our tribes, to our cultures, to our species, to our planet.  If our psychological impulses are complicated, it is because they were shaped by complicated and conflicting demands.

He reduces the problem of complexity to its essence. Imagine each time horizon and stakeholders represented by a crystal ball, if you like. You have six of them to keep going at all times. Drop one, and it breaks. “Don't drop the ball” takes a whole new meaning.

That's why it's so hard to operate at different time scales. Difficult, but not impossible. Making reasonable trade-offs is a skill you acquire by doing the work. Operationally, you need to think in terms of pace levels and working structure size.

In a healthy society, says Brand, each level can operate at its own pace. I'd say this is also true in a healthy company culture. Ideally, each level is sustained safely by the one below it, which moves at a slower pace. In turn, each lower level can innovate thanks to the level above it.

Conversation is a great tool to test and iterate ideas because it helps you affect change. Dissent is a useful tool in a legal context. Change needs to happen at different paces for fashion, commerce, infrastructure, governance, and culture to avoid dysfunction.

Another way of saying this is, it's critical to understand how change works, so you can put more energy in the things that have more power.


A time for every purpose

Not confusing the layers means working tirelessly in the craft of creating a commercial product or service that helps people do what they want to do well. While also working timelessly at the structure that creates the kind of culture that delivers a superior product or service that does the job.

In marketing speak, we say jobs to be done (JTBD). JTBD is why we “hire” a product or service. The focus is the thing we want to do, rather than the feature of the product or service that does it.

If you need a tablet or a computer, you could buy one based on price. But Steve Jobs understood that it wasn't just about monetary cost. A computer that was easier and more pleasurable to use was worth more to people. Because it didn't get in the way and frustrated you a lot less. Apple led with design and experience. The rest of the industry eventually followed, in their own ways.

If you need a pair of glasses to read, you could start by buying the cheap kind. But when you're wearing them on your face all day long, you're thinking more in terms of identity and comfort. Designer glasses are fashionable, so you could go that route. Or, you could go get a run of the mill design and still spend a lot to add prescription lenses. Warby Parker solved that problem by brokering the difference between cost and style.

This last example is also a good illustration of how not to be at cross-purposes with layers. When you build a company, you're working at the structure, governance, and culture layers at the same time as you're working on commercial and fashion layers. 

Company's purpose and vision transfer value at the structural and culture layers. Mission and values are useful at helping employees decide how to behave as they do the work. In that sense, they transfer value onto customer experience, but indirectly. As Warby Parker learned:#

After style and fit come value and customer experience. Customers want the highest-quality product for their price point, and at Warby Parker, this means selling $95 glasses made with premium materials that are traditionally sold for hundreds of dollars, all while providing amazing customer experiences.

Third comes our Buy a Pair, Give a Pair program. While customers certainly love the fact that we give back, at the end of the day, it's not a critical factor in deciding whether to buy a pair of glasses.

Customers care about certain things. As a strategist, you keep this in mind when you help people make new choices. But as a leader, you need to keep in mind different time horizons. Warby Parker CEO, Neil Blumenthal says:

But, frankly, the social mission is what drives us. It's what gets us up in the morning. It's what prevents us from hitting the snooze button and spending another 15 minutes sleeping. And for our 1,800 current employees and for people that we're recruiting, we lead with social mission. That's the No. 1 reason people want to come work for Warby Parker.

Hence it's part of the mechanism for the transfer of value of intellectual, social, human, and manufacturing capitals into the product. You're buying a pair of glasses produced by a culture that believes in having and fulfilling a greater social mission.


Working on what has power

Writing here is my social mission. It's what gets me up in the morning and builds my intellectual, social, and human capitals. But it's not as important to clients and companies that hire my skills for their jobs to be done.

I've learned to work simultaneously at different pace layers, because they're all important. While fast—as in fashion, likes, follows, campaigns—gets all the attention, slow—as in craftsmanship, competence, sustainability, legacy—has all the power.

Taking Stewart Brand's perspective leads to designing solutions that maximize the resilience of the systems you design. That is to be as good for as many futures as possible, rather than optimizing them for a single future, which seems likely in the short run but is in effect incredibly unlikely to materialize over a period longer than a couple of years.

Here's an example from Philip and Turntoo: light as a service.# 

Architect Thomas Rau worked with Philips to purchase light as a service. The end result was a bespoke 'pay-per-lux' intelligent lighting system to fit the requirements of the space, at a manageable price. Philips retain control over the items they produce, enabling better maintenance, reconditioning and recovery.

It's a way of being in a space that has more power than just putting lamps and shades around an office, doesn't it? Paying for performance draws out how everyone is responsible for the consequences of what they produce.#

I was curious, so I took a glance at Turntoo and I found an example of vision as operating system for the work:

Looking at earth from a distance, it becomes clear that man is a temporary guest in a closed system: earth. In this system, everything is equally important to ensure a stable balance with a future. Within earth’s boundaries our only possible growth is a mental one.

The highest aim is to facilitate the continuity of life. In this respect, economy is the organized alliance between man and nature. We facilitate this relationship with a new system architecture. This results in, among others, innovative concepts, products, and services. Our basic principle remains to facilitate our temporary presence.

It explains well how the firm operates at different pace layers. Architects are trained to become system thinkers. The Turntoo website is a good example of system work: product as a service, service as a product, ideas as material, material as ideas.

Rather than a play on words, it's a smart use of words to orient you along dimensions of their work.


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