Hurry Up or Wait – Which is Better?

The Wall Street Journal last week-end carried a book review of a book by Frank Partnoy entitled Wait; The Art and Science of Delay. One of the quotes from the book that I find memorable and thought-provoking is “Don’t just do something, stand there”.  Mr. Partnoy says, “We are hard-wired to react quickly.  Modern society taps into that hard-wiring, tempting us to respond instantly to all kinds of information and demands.  Yet we are often better off resisting both biology and technology.”  All this brought several of my experiences to mind including – among others – the following.

  • As an Army ROTC student in college, I learned the military approach to planning and execution. We were told in the classroom that planning for battles or maneuvers was important.  However, we shouldn’t attempt to take the time to develop a ” perfect plan” but merely a workable plan and that often “vigorous execution could overcome some deficiencies in planning”.  At Ft. Benning, Ga. in summer camp training exercises I heard the admonition “do something, cadet, even if it’s wrong” from our coaches and trainers too many time to mention.  I don’t remember the term “wait” being in anyone’s vocabulary.
  • The headline of the article in the Wall Street Journal was “Go Ahead, Think It Over” reminded me of some advice from a mechanical engineering professor that I had in college.  On the first day of class he told us that we would frequently have problems to solve as class homework. That these were designed to make us think and if we should get stuck on one it would often be helpful to take a break for a few minutes;  “Get up and leave it for a few minutes” he said, “take a piss and then come back to it.”  (i.e taking time to “Sleep on it” is not a bad idea.)
  • A Vice President of Marketing in the company I worked for shared this observation over a drink in a bar after work one day.  I was an IT manager and we had just recently finished putting in a network of computers in a chain of convenience stores that the company operated.  He could now get immediate daily activity reports on sales and activity at each store rather than wait several days on “snail mail”.  The system was working well, he said, except that the unintended consequence of its installation was that it took away his “think time”.  In the old days, someone would call and tell him of a problem and promise to send him some data and reports.  It would take several days for this information to get put together and mailed to him.  Those few days gave him time to think of alternatives and the advantages/disadvantages of each.  There  would be no pressure to make a decision until he got the data or reports.  Now he could get that information immediately and hence there was pressure to make an immediate decision.  He believed that the decisions made with the wait/think time may have been better because of the excuse to wait.
  • In the 70s, after the Japanese (peaceful) invasion of products which put pressure on American manufacturing, there were many articles and studies comparing Japanese culture and management practices with those in the U.S.  One common observation was that the Japanese tended to take longer in planning a project or activity, but the execution phase went very quickly.  Whereas, we in the U.S., tended to not spend much planning time, but would rush quickly to start doing something; and so in the execution phase, there were unanticipated problems causing it to take much longer.
  • In the book “Quality is Free” (written in 1979), Philip Crosby put forth the idea that products which came from a well designed manufacturing process and thus contained fewer defects could actually be cheaper to make than those which were less well planned.  At the time, computer system development was a major issue for many – if not most – companies.  I was a manager responsible for custom system development and we were struggling to improve out development processes.  Part of the difficulty was getting our users to understand why we needed to spend so much time in specification and planning phases of a project.   “Why isn’t Johnny coding?” was typical of the type of questions we would get.  Some of our developers liked to complain by saying “We don’t have enough time to do it right the first time, but we have plenty of time to do it over.”  Not only did “doing it over” take longer, it was also more expensive.

So what is the answer here?  Is it better to make quick decisions and do something or go slow and do more thinking and planning?  Clearly, I think the answer is, “it depends”.  There seems to be no doubt that our American culture gives points for quick decisions.  It is also clear that taking time to think and to adequately plan, improves decisions and ultimate results.  How much time we have to do that should be dictated by factors inherent in each specific situation, not by social pressures.  There are times when threats or opportunities beyond our control require quick decisions and actions.  But my marketing VP friend felt he needed an obvious, public excuse to be able to give himself the “think time” that would result in better decisions.  I have come to believe that “every decision has its time”.  Our first question should be “when?” not “what?”.  When does the situation dictate that we need to know what the decision is.   If we have the luxury of time to let initial ideas percolate and new ideas surface, we should use it.  In the Wall Street Journal, the reviewer ends the review with a quote in the book from psychologist Robert Sternberg:  “The essence of intelligence would seem to be in knowing when to think and act quickly, and knowing when to think and act slowly.”  To that I can only say, “Amen”.


About tjc13

BE - Chem Engineering, Vanderbilt Univ, MBA, University of Tulsa - Worked for an energy and chemical company for many years and then started a management consulting business working for both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations.
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