Recently I have been involved in several meetings in which someone in a leadership position has said something to the effect of, "We need to decide immediately and we must act quickly, our competition is leaving us behind." You, good reader, may have heard those same words, or have spoken them.
Two new books will serve as the bedrock for this month's column, and just the titles articulate the thesis for us: "Wait: The Art and Science of Delay" by Frank Partnoy, and "The Slow Fix: Solve Problems, Work Smarter and Live Better in a World Addicted to Speed" by Carl Honoré.
And, by way of emphasis, I'll also refer to one of my favorite works which first appeared in this column several years ago, Edward Hallowell's "Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! Strategies for Coping in a World Gone ADD."
So, even if you are too busy, too harried and hurried, to read the rest of this column, just the subtitles of these books should encourage you to step back, sit down and pause before you decide to do something else, pause just for a few seconds, or even milliseconds -- and even milliseconds can make all the difference in the world.
In a world now of multiple nations with nuclear weaponry, one can only hope that all of the players with their fingers on the red button will exercise the patience and communication manifested by President Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev 50 years ago during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
To learn how the world even then was only milliseconds away from an apocalyptic Armageddon, read Jeffrey Sachs' new book "To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace." Had impulsive decision making ruled the day, the world could have fallen into the nuclear abyss.
So much for the macrocosm. At a microcosmic level, much closer to home, I recently spent some time trying to assist a friend in holding onto her job. We were making good progress -- until she hit the "send" button, releasing an angry email, factually based but emotionally loaded, copied to twenty-some colleagues, and the powers-in-charge were offended.
Without too much revelatory detail, I can only comment that this was a case of classical institutional budgeting ambiguity, and her email carried the day -- the wrong way.
I have said for several years that someone should design a keyboard which would register the blood pressure of the person typing, and if the pressure is over a personally prescribed limit, the "send" button would not work. Such a device would have prevented my friend from shouting out too quickly -- and would also have precluded innumerable rapidly escalating internecine battles I have seen on many campuses and in other organizations.
Impulse should never preclude reflection.
Personally, two of the worst decisions I made in a lengthy career were the result of impulsive reactions, not intuitive nor instinctual, but impulsive. And those two bad decisions were not enabled nor enhanced by technology. Fortunately, when I retired, the world of email and instant messaging was just beginning to drive all organizational culture. Books like "Crazy Busy," "The Slow Fix" and "Wait" were not out yet -- but there surely was conventional, even clichéd, advice available which should have prevented me from acting impulsively.
For example, I enjoy cold bottled green tea -- and two of my favorite brands (no free advertising here) proffer tidbits of wisdom on the bottle cap or the label. The bottle cap yesterday (and this is the truth) read "Haste makes waste," venerable and still viable advice.
On the other hand, the cap this morning (as my wife can verify) stated, "Don't just stand there, do something." So, once again, as has been a constant motif of this column over the past 12 years, ambiguity reigns.
From the most recent brain research-based books to our public-domain bottle cap axioms, nothing is simplistically absolute -- and most decisions of any significance will be fraught with ambiguity in context, content and timing.
Haste can make waste. We've all been there. But haste can make hay while the sun shines. (Mixing metaphors is enticing, right?) Most of the leadership literature predicated upon current brain research, however, would warn us about making any important decisions too hastily.
Early this year I discussed John Perry's "The Art of Procrastination," personally anecdotal and light-hearted, but perceptive and profound. He insisted (based more on his experiences than on research) that learning to slow down in our frenetic world will lead to better communication and more effective decision making.
To support Perry's thesis -- and based most pointedly on neuroscience, behavioral economics and other in-depth psychological studies -- one can turn to "Partnoy's Wait: The Art and Science of Delay." Wide-varying in topics -- from sports and economics to fighter pilots and law -- Partnoy discusses in depth and demonstrates in detail the necessity for and value of delay when making decisions.
He even proffers (at least to me) a new word: "Preproperation," the term for acting when we should wait. Preproperation stands, of course, as the counterpoint to procrastination, usually the term for waiting when we should act. Partnoy presents overwhelming evidence, though, that whether you are an investor using algorithms geared to milliseconds or a comedian playing to and with anticipatory audiences, the pause, the delay, the wait often will prove critical to success.
In our hypertext world, to delay a decision, even for a moment, let alone a week, a month, or forever, often proves most challenging.
Hallowell's comic but creatively descriptive vocabulary in "Crazy Busy" lets us feel the frenetic nature of our life: screensucking, gigaguilt, pizzled, conversation interruptus, doomdarts, info addicts and megaloctopus. His vocabulary strikes one as incisively amusing but acutely alarming.
The now omnipresent "cloud," ostensibly connecting us all, so often dictates only speed and haste, creating chaos and cacophony instead of clarification and thoughtful communication. The ultimate challenge, then, is to slow down, even just a bit, in our decision making.
So, to conclude this discussion for now, I would recommend Carl Honoré's "The Slow Fix." In a world so markedly addicted to the "quick fix," Honoré presents multiple examples of a problem-solving and decision-making paradigm which will enhance the value and viability of one's personal and professional life.
His process, fluid and flexible, entails taking and making time to reflect thoughtfully, listen carefully, think holistically, learn and teach honestly, and lead with compassion and creativity.
Any prospective leader should read Honoré to learn how so often the best quick fix is the slow fix.
Dr. Joel Jones is President Emeritus of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.