slow down to speed up leadership

An old fable tells of a farmer with a wagon brimming full of cabbage heading to a new market. He stops for directions and asks, “How far is it to the market?” The man replies, “It’s about an hour if you go slowly. But if you rush, it will take all day.” It was a bumpy road, and if the farmer went too fast, he’d spend most of his time picking up the cabbage that bounced off his wagon.

Taking the time to slow down can move us more quickly along our way. An experiment in crowd control provides a good example. A major — and sometimes deadly problem — at many large venues like stadiums with huge crowds is everyone jamming the exits when it’s over and time to leave. The study found a counterintuitive solution; slowing people down with obstacles to speed up the rushing hordes of people eager to get home. Strategically placed obstructions slowed the crowd down just enough to better control the flow of people through narrower exits points. This allowed more people to exit more quickly.

In their Harvard Business Review, “Too Many Projects,” Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins write, “Leaders keep layering on initiatives, which can lead to severe overload at levels below the executive team.” This is a critical problem that’s burning out managers and team members. Declining engagement and retention are just two symptoms of the problem.

There are many reasons leadership teams allow their priorities to be badly distorted. Things that matter most — team dynamics, key strategic priorities, and organization change and development efforts — are often crowded out by things that matter least — firefighting operational issues better managed by those closest to the action.

Fall is a popular time for strategic planning sessions. A critical differentiator of highly effective and agile leadership teams is slowing down to increase their speed. Tomorrow we publish my July blogs in our August issue of The Leader Letter. This issue focuses on strategic leadership. We’ll look at leading change versus being changed, four strategic planning traps and how to avoid them, how truly strategic leadership teams rock, and how to boost strategic retreat effectiveness.

For decades, Harvard professor Michael Porter has studied, written about, and consulted top companies and countries on competitive strategy. He’s found that “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

How strategic is your leadership team? Are you slowing down to speed up?