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Is our misguided affair with agility putting speed ahead of good work?

Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
A sprint to the finish line.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The world of business is obsessed with speed.

We celebrate big ideas—especially when they’re achieved or conceived fast. Super-fast.

The startups that make it big in what feels like mere moments are celebrated beyond measure, their CEOs touted as heroes and visionaries. And oftentimes, their meteoric rise is due to making an existing service faster or more efficient—think Uber, Airbnb, or Amazon.

The way these businesses develop theses ideas, their coveted speedy process, is in itself an increasingly lauded thing.

This fascination with speed drives us to believe that the American dream—that promise that anybody who works hard can achieve—is still real.

As long as you go full force, and dream fast.

Fast, faster, fastest

In business, innovation is praised especially when it’s fast. Henry Ford’s assembly line famously cut production time for a car from 12 hours to 93 minutes. Amazon launched its two-day delivery Prime service in 2005, giving customers quick access to tens of millions of products. In 2019, it outdid itself with same-day shipping and grocery delivery within two hours with its acquisition of the Whole Foods supermarket chain. 

While these innovations are impressive, they’re actually few and far between. In the real world, speedy innovation has become a scramble for survival. According to the Small Business Administration, 50% of businesses fail within their first five years. For fledgling ventures, if you don’t succeed quickly, you not only fail fast, you fail abysmally.

So, why do we glorify speed, a thing that so few can achieve meaningfully? Why are we fixated on speedy methodologies such as the sprint to inspire innovation and new thinking? 

The answer is simple. The startup is the sultry muse of big business, a fantasy in its unattainability and mystery. But a successful startup is the exception, not the rule. Most companies, business ventures, and innovations don’t benefit from startup protocol.

And by adopting the jargon of startups, we only further our addiction and fetishize the culture of quickness.

Words like “agile,” “nimble” and “sprint” have infiltrated management and become values that the largest corporations aspire to emulate. Phrases and titles that have become colloquialism urge all of us to “act like a startup”, “fail fast, fail often” and “innovate or die.”

Quick fixes like the sprint model and scrum have become commonplace. The stereotypical trappings of super-speedy startups are so commonplace that they’re laughable—hoodies, kegs in the office, Instagrammable hang spots, and the like.

But is our fascination with speed warranted? Is faster always better? Is emulating the speed of startup culture a smart business move? Isn’t it time to break the addiction, and find inspiration through … slowing it down?

The reality is that speed is not a strategy in and of itself. In fact, speed can be dangerous, especially for big businesses.

Is faster really better?

Speed broadens our blind spots, and can therefore facilitate costly errors. By necessity, aggressively racing toward an end-goal forces us to put our blinders on.

Take the recent hoverboard craze. In 2017, the US Consumer Product Safety Commission deemed all hoverboards unsafe and recalled more than half a million of them after reports of explosions, fires, and even some fatalities. After the explosion of hoverboards, manufacturers started producing cheaper batteries that did not meet safety standards, all in a rush to meet consumer demand. An obsession to capitalize quickly on the hoverboard craze muted the most important accompanying factor for the brands that produced them: the safety of the customer.  

Why do we glorify speed, a thing that so few businesses can achieve meaningfully?

Speed encourages hasty design. Designing quickly can quite literally lead to disaster. NASA was founded less than a year after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, spurring the ambitious goal of sending a manned vessel to the surface of the moon by the end of the 1960s. The aggressive nature of the space race with the Soviets resulted in the untimely deaths of three astronauts in the Apollo 1 program, who perished in a fully preventable fire. This was the result of poor design choices, where quality was sacrificed in the urgency of winning. This is perhaps an extreme example, but it’s unquestionable that design developed with speed of completion as the biggest priority will result in a product that isn’t completely sound, sooner or later.

When followed by success, speed fuels hubris. Facebook is a great example of this. For the social platform giant, fast success was novel and refreshing when it was still viewed as a dorm-room toy. But in the 15 years since, Facebook has become so dominant a force that it can’t even police itself and has become the principal agent of the disinformation era.

To “move fast and break things” might have been cool when Facebook was a fledgling underdog. Now, this more than $100 billion company is a modern-day Godzilla, breaking everything in its path. Maybe even democracy.

In defense of being slow

Innovation doesn’t have to be fast. And in many cases, it shouldn’t be.

So, what if business pulled away from this obsession with pace and refocused on quality? 

Once again, we can learn from history. So many of the world’s greatest innovations took significant time to develop. Thomas Edison’s lab tested more than 3,000 designs before creating the lightbulb that today illuminates our world round-the-clock. A noisy flight in 1978 inspired Dr. Amar Bose to develop noise canceling headphones, but it would take 11 more years for them to be sold in stores.

Leonard Cohen’s legendary song “Hallelujah” took him two years to write. Thirty-five years after its release, more than 100 versions of the song have been recorded.

All of this makes me wonder: How is it possible to not only dream, but to dream fast?

Speed has become an impulsive indicator of success, in business and culture at large. The startup mentality is now perceived as so essential to the workplace that we’ve forgotten how to create without it. We’ve become addicted to speed and the culture it creates, and quality has been forced to the back burner.

I argue that speed in and of itself is a false ambition.

It perpetuates innovation for the sake of itself, instead of as a true need. And what’s more problematic is that speed often means skipping over the complexities that make quality work in the first place, forcing elements of simplicity in the wrong places. We’ve forgotten the importance of craft and nuance.

There is inherent merit in taking things slowly.

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