On my way back home after the second module of a leadership program with a set of smart and interesting and passionate participants. What a delight. These folks are cursed, as so many of us are, though, with pressure to produce and perform that has them working far too many hours. They are worried—and we are worried too—about how they’ll be able to maintain some of the changes they have made given the demands of their work. How is it that busy people can make significant changes? This brings to mind a question another colleague asked me this week: Is it possible that leaders can actually get too busy to develop?
I’m not sure how we could measure the impact of hours of busyness on development, but surely we can notice what leads to development and make sense of the time it would take to get there. And we could wonder what it means to be in a society that values being busy so much, and values reflection so little. We talk in our programs about going slow to go fast, an idea that seems counter-intuitive at first and then, over time, is so helpful that the leaders repeat the phrase again and again to each other. Instead of putting out each fire as it crops up, going slow to go fast means developing the habit of standing back from these fires and looking at the patterns, wondering about the various factors that might be causing them, and then responding by watching, probing, experimenting.
I’m talking about a really different response than the one we see plaguing many organizations—the gridlock that we see in boardrooms, in the US Congress, in Italian politics. To me that kind of gridlock looks like a beating the head against a wall, a repeating of familiar patterns without learning very much. The going slow I’m talking about is the watchful and curious form we practice in our Action Learning Groups, where we try to understand a thing deeply, where action and reflection are braided together to make a stronger solution than simple action-action-action.
But you knew all this, right? You know you should slow down and reflect more. We all know this. Why don’t we do it? I think there are a couple of major reasons. One is that reflecting is hard and we often don’t even know how to do it. It’s frustrating and unsettling to be confused—much better to feel like we’re really taking action to make a thing better (even if the action we take is unlikely to make a thing better). I think we have to learn how to do this well and comfortably (that’s why Action Learning Groups are such a help).
Another reason is that it’s hard to schedule thinking space the way we schedule action space. This year as I’m working on our new book, I’ve scheduled one week a month—25% of my time—to write. And while I’m pretty strict around keeping that time aside, a client with an emergency or a meeting impossible to schedule at another time finds its way into my calendar during that week. It’s gotten so clients are starting to ask when my writing week is so that they can have a sense of when to schedule. It’s hard to protect open space.
And of course that last reason—we don’t get rewarded for thinking well. We get rewarded for accomplishing well. And even though most of us know that thinking well will get us to accomplish more, the feedback loop has too big a lag for our fairly simple reasoning systems to hold on to. I can take a week and work on a book that won’t be published for another 18 months, or I can take a day and help a client now. Maybe that book will help a hundred clients when it’s out, maybe it’ll help a thousand. But the immediate desire to support one client now rather than a thousand in the future still calls to me.
We have to fight these tendencies carefully and with thoughtful intent. In our programs, we try to avoid these natural human quirks by scheduling in reflection. We make quiet space in the programs themselves. We create Action Learning Groups and hold the line on reflective questioning in those. We offer new sets of questions designed to make old ways of thinking harder to slip into. And in our coaching, we take time to slow down, to climb up onto the highest balcony together and look out over the patterns and possibilities in our clients’ lives. And for me now with my book? I’m trying to schedule seven days of writing a month rather than five, knowing that I’ll lose a couple days to meetings along the way. It’s a trick, sure, but my brain tricks me into taking a less helpful path a lot of the time. Here I’m just trying to even the odds.