When Slower is Faster


Welcome to this second edition of Lead in the Moment, a weekly newsletter where I share my experience, insights, and advice for leaders in a complex, fast changing, and unpredictable world.

Humans have lost the efficiency race

Some years ago, my family and I rented a vacation place in a small town on the South Portugal coast. On arrival, I rushed to the supermarket to get supplies before they closed. In my American haste, I scurried through the shelves determined to be super-efficient. Unfamiliar with the store’s layout, I struggled to find everything I needed. Without greeting the proprietor, for efficiency’s sake I simply asked him where the eggs were.  His response caught me off guard, “Just a minute, please. Firstly, good afternoon. Now, tell me who you are, where you’re from and why you are here. Then I’ll be happy to tell you everything you want to know.” This encounter led to a delightful conversation where he shared local insights that only a resident would possess. My shopping may have been less efficient than I had planned, but the start to our vacation was far more efficient due to the proprietor’s ability to shift me from a mechanical pace to a human one. He transformed my task-oriented perspective into a relational one. I came away with much more than the groceries I had come to buy. I was richer for it.

The triumph of nature

Long before the race against robots and AI, humans had already conceded the efficiency race to both nature and machines. In the grand arena of efficiency, nature reigns as the silent champion. Spanning the spectrum from microscopic organisms to monumental creatures, the animal world, through its evolutionary optimization, has achieved a level of efficiency that eclipses even our most advanced innovations. Many animals have evolved more advanced energy utilization capacities than humans, enabling them to extract optimal value from minimal input. Effective collaboration is a challenge in any organization. However, animals and other organisms have mastered collaboration through the art of symbiosis, a mutually beneficial relationship that heightens overall efficiency.

Embracing slow serendipity

Should we even compete in the efficiency arena? Perhaps we should concede victory to nature and machines, recognizing that while efficiency is a virtue for them, it may not be for us. The pursuit of efficiency often curtails the possibility of serendipity, which frequently catalyzes innovation and invention. Had Thomas Edison solely chased efficiency he might have avoided the thousand failures that ultimately led to the incandescent light bulb’s discovery. If Alexander Fleming hadn’t relinquished efficiency for a vacation, leaving his cluttered laboratory behind, Penicillin might have remained undiscovered. Had Percy Spencer not observed a candy bar carelessly left in his pocket melting as he walked past a Raytheon magnetron, the microwave oven might never have come into existence. Unlike animals, human ingenuity is not primarily about efficiency and survival; it’s about innovation that molds and reshapes the world.

Human proficiency is beyond efficiency

While humans might not excel in efficiency, we possess other faculties that thrive in slowness rather than speed. Reading may benefit from speed, but understanding thrives when we take time to reflect on what we read. Swift communication may involve impromptu remarks, but genuine inspiration necessitates preparation, modulated tone, and the power of pause in speech. These might not be the most efficient approaches, yet they are remarkably effective in achieving results. Imagine an efficient, binary sunset – where the sun just turned off! The slowness of sunrise and sunset inspires us with daily beauty. Efficiency would deprive us.

Efficiency is not the true distinction

Efficiency can undoubtedly offer an advantage, even a necessity, in competitive scenarios, whether against others or oneself. However, efficiency should never constitute our primary differentiating factor. If we define ourselves by efficiency, we risk being outperformed by others or machines that are either more efficient or more innovative than we are. Additionally, not every situation is a competition; often we are striving, growing, creating, or innovating. In such contexts, relentless efficiently is unnecessary and, at times, undesirable. When acumen and ingenuity surpass the need for speed, deliberate slowness can yield the fastest route to optimal outcomes. Prior to undertaking a task, assess whether competition is critical or if the quality of your outcome will be the deciding factor. This isn’t an “either-or” proposition. Wasting resources, including time, should be avoided. Yet, the pursuit of efficiency at the expense of effectiveness can sometimes prove futile.

Embracing our unique humanity

The fear of being supplanted by robots and AI is real for those whose contribution is merely efficient task accomplishment. However, individuals or teams that infuse their work with distinctive human qualities remain irreplaceable by machines.

Machines can analyze past data to predict future trends. Only humans can perceive the zeitgeist that might shift the future onto an unforeseen path. While machines enhance efficiency and comfort, only empathetic humans can anticipate needs before they’re recognized. Algorithms can motivate, but only humans can inspire. Machines provide information; humans provide meaning. Machines can wage war; humans can foster peace.

Slow down. Be human.

  • Reflect daily on how you can uniquely contribute as a human, distinguishing yourself from machines.
  • Evaluate your tasks and determine which ones require efficiency over ingenuity.
  • Automate or delegate tasks that are more suited for efficiency.
  • Identify gaps where human ingenuity and empathy would significantly enhance outcomes.
  • Dedicate time and talent to cultivating these areas.

Thank you for reading and stay tuned for the next edition!