Execute More Effectively - Slowing Down to Speed Up

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As a part of recent project work to help a client build a stronger business development culture, we took time to talk one-on-one to the people most directly involved in the initiative to get a pulse on how things were going. One of the questions we asked was “What benefits have you gained from this approach?”  One of the most common answers we heard was “being able to slow down.” Additionally, a couple of participants noted it wasn’t just the slowing down they benefitted from. It was learning they had permission to slow down that was empowering.

In reflecting on these conversations, we started to notice a similar phenomenon across several of our clients. Professionals felt relieved when they were part of an event or process that included “slowing down” (e.g., pausing to think, a strategy meeting, a conversation or brainstorming session with team members about something they felt stuck on, planning or debriefing a meeting, etc.).  As a result, they weren’t just relieved to stop racing to the finish line. They produced a higher level of execution and better results. Although it seems a bit counterintuitive, the process of slowing down actually helped them speed up and achieve their objectives in a more effective and efficient manner. 

In today’s business environment, most professionals feel the constant pressure of speed. The pressure is on us constantly to get stuff done, to "respond", to know the path or answers, and to be "on" due in large part to the cultural messages received, whether explicit or implicit. These messages positively reinforce doing the most work possible in an expedient and efficient manner while minimizing "down time" and turnaround time. In addition, measures are often connected to "production" (i.e., tangible deliverables, hours, "checking the box", presentations, filling a talent gap within a certain time, etc.). Simply put, a sense of urgency and high levels of continuous activity are rewarded and recognized. 

That’s not all bad, is it? Of course not, but it’s not all good either. 

So what’s the risk? This pressure of speed, whether implicit or explicit, carries with it an execution risk. If we maintain the pace without periodically pausing to consider context or perspective, we can actually impede or limit the results, shortcut learning, and underperform. In other words, being busy or productive doesn’t necessarily mean we are getting the right things done or achieving impact through action on the most important things. The goal in execution is to know what the important things are and be sure those are getting done in the most effective way possible. 

To personally produce our best results and execute with excellence, we must pause or slow down long enough to think, plan, strategize, be proactive, question assumptions, learn, and gain perspective. As leaders developing others, we must not only be sure we are challenging team members to step above the details to focus on results and think critically. We must also be sure we are giving them permission and empowering them to make that part of the work a priority.   

To execute more effectively, examine what is happening in your work environment:

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  • Review the culture for implicit expectations. Notice if the culture and work environment support or hinder activities that promote slowing down, such as critical thinking, planning, collaboration, proactivity, "blue sky time", and focusing on the important things.

  • Check leadership messaging and alignment with actions. If the culture allows for slowing down but leaders don’t or frown upon it, team members will err on the side of speeding up and pushing through, minimizing possible friction along the way. In contrast, if leadership values and prioritizes planning and foresight, team members are more likely to replicate that behavior.  

  • Examine your measurement, rewards, and recognition. Be alert to what actions and behaviors are being positively reinforced. If we reward “checking the box” type thinking, we may get more “check the box” type results. Ensure the accountability and rewards align with the contributions and outcomes you expect from the role, not just the activity.

When it comes to execution, the concept of slowing down doesn’t mean dragging things out or adding a lot of steps. It simply means taking enough time to be intentional in thought – to clarify the desired outcomes and ensure the best actions are being taken, and to thoughtfully implement the best process to achieve the objectives. For some issues, that will mean pausing long enough to affirm the next step or action. For others, it might be taking time for a strategy session.  Regardless, slowing down will pay off and help you achieve your best results.