“Faster, faster, faster til the love of speed overcomes the fear of death.” That quote, from Hunter S Thompson, seems to have been the motto of the last decade.
Globalisation, together with new technology, made everything move at light speed. Deals were done in days, industries reconfigured overnight.
Peter Drucker told us we should build companies like tents, expecting nothing to last and everything to change. So we all became 24-hour road warriors, heedless of time zones and jet lag.
Is it just me, or do I hear a slight sigh of relief that, at last, everything has to slow down a little?
There might be some good reasons for doing so. An experiment was carried out in which volunteers were asked to read a number of statements about a criminal on a screen. Some were false – and they were in colour. At the same time, numbers crawled along the bottom of the screen, rather like stock prices or headlines on news channels. Some of the volunteers had to write down each time they saw the number five.
When the session finished, results showed that volunteers who’d had to look for the number five more frequently mistook false statements for true ones. That, in turn, meant that they decided the criminal’s sentence should be twice as long as that recommended by the less distracted volunteers.
It didn’t take much – merely a search for the digit five – to change, quite radically, the precision and quality of the volunteer’s reception of information. With fewer mental resources available, that they made bad judgments was inevitable. Careless thinking costs lives.
When I first read about this experiment, my first thought was: that explains the banking crisis. Most business people I know are distracted by signals and data a lot more complex than looking for the number five.
Their Blackberries, mobile phones, email, texts, newspapers, radio and the ubiquitous news stations all demand attention and, often, response. Everything is urgent – and that’s before you even begin to grapple with face-to-face relationships.
No wonder all those bad deals got done, on rotten terms, by executives who didn’t grasp the full implications of their actions. If they look like they didn’t know what they were doing, perhaps it is because they didn’t.
Being busy is not the same as paying attention. Indeed, the experiment would suggest they may be polar opposites.
The brain is attracted to movement and the entrepreneur has a bias for action. The combination can be devastating. Many of us would rather do anything than sit still and think, and few of us know how to do it. Not because we’re stupid but because it’s hard.
When I worked at the BBC, I used to schedule thinking time for myself, but it was never something I could do at my desk. Instead, I’d leave the office and walk around the block for 20 minutes. The beauty of that 20-minute period is that it’s short enough that you can’t argue you don’t have the time and long enough to comb through a lot of knots and tangles in your head.
The other night, I was dining with a business leader who knows the prime minister well. I argued that he should find a new speech writer – someone who understood the need for mindful optimism and inspiration.
Brown’s friend argued that what he needs is a good night’s sleep – the man is simply exhausted and distracted. If that frightens you as much as it does me, think how your employees must feel when they see you in the same condition.
If the economic downturn means that we all slow down a little, that may turn out to be the smartest strategy of all. Because the economy certainly won’t recover until we do.