May 29, 2022 2 min read

Speed as the Wrong Criteria

The notion of speed is pervasive in our culture and ends up becoming the de-facto basis on which we make decisions. Often we don't even realize that we are in fact doing so.

But speed as a dominant criterion can make us myopic and blind to the reality that we face, especially when it comes to human beings and change, including ourselves.

There is no fruit which is not bitter before it is ripe.

– Publilius Syrus

This is even more so true in the area of leadership development. People change and develop in biological time, not clock time.

Consider two excerpts from Peter Block and Robert Kegan that highlight this notion.

Here’s Block:

We live in a culture of speed, short cycle time, instant gratification, fast food, and quick action. So the question of How long? becomes important. Why wouldn’t we want everything right now? How long?—like the others—makes its own statement: If it takes too long, the answer is probably no.

It implies that change or improvement needs to happen quickly, the faster the better. In this way, the question How long? drives us to actions that oversimplify the world. If we believe that faster is better, we choose those strategies that can be acted upon quickly. As individuals, we would rather lose weight with a quick fix of diet pills than the slower, more demanding process of changing a lifetime of eating and exercise habits.
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We want changes to occur in days, weeks, and months, not years. The most important effect of the "How long" question is that it drives us to answers that meet the criteria of speed.

It runs the risk of precluding slower, more powerful strategies that are more in line with what we know about learning and development. We treat urgency like a performance-enhancing drug, as if calling for speed will hasten change, despite the evidence that authentic transformation requires more time than we ever imagined.
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We have time for all that is truly important to us, so the question of time shifts to What is important? When we say something takes too long, it just means that it does not matter to us.
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Our ability to know how long a change in a living system will take is a guess at best. How long does it take to raise a child, change a culture, create a new direction, shift a strategy? We can shout urgency, set tight schedules, define monster goals, and the world will still proceed at the pace it chooses. We are too prone to understate the time required as a means of convincing ourselves or others to go ahead.

– Peter Block in The Answer to How is Yes

Here’s Kegan:

Why does it take time? Because we are in the world of human cultivation, not human engineering. We are not speaking of flipping a light switch. We are speaking of the evolution of mental complexity, of the gradual process of mental differentiation and reintegration, of looking at a way of making meaning we used to only look through, of shifting subject to object.

You have no problem with longer time horizons when you are talking about any other major initiative in your organization; why do you expect overnight success in this one?

You know the future of a tulip bulb is to blossom into a tulip; you know the future of a caterpillar is to sprout wings and fly. But you are not impatient with the tulip bulb or the caterpillar.                                          

– Robert Kegan & Lisa Lahey in Immunity to Change

The next time we become impatient with the lack of progress of a high-performer or even an entire team, consider what our underlying model is? Is it one of clock time or of biological time?

Same goes for our own developmental efforts. What things are we not trying simply because we think it will take too long?


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Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
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