November 17, 2022

The Greed for Speed

A fighter jet display team in formation

I often see the same symptoms in the first sessions with my coaching clients. They’re highly stressed, feeling overwhelmed, sometimes close to burnout, experiencing unreasonable time demands from bosses, each day of work never seeming to make adequate progress or have focus.

For the coachee to make progress about what they want to do and where they want to be in the next few years, they first need to make space and time to think and reflect. So the first sessions are focused on bringing stress levels back down, reframing priorities, and resetting boundaries between work and personal life. The effect is palpable in subsequent sessions. Coachees talk slower, more reflectively and start to see a life and future beyond work. But this deals with the symptoms, not the cause: the greed for speed.

Speed is considered a self-evident Good Thing™ in business. As with most apparently self-evident things, laddering up the whys gets to the underlying values. When I ask coachees why there is such pressure to go faster, they usually point to their line manager’s demands. When we examine why those people are piling on the pressure to go faster, it’s usually because the CEO is under pressure from investors. Those folks want the company to grow bigger, faster. It helps to remind coachees that these are already wealthy people wanting to become even wealthier, quicker. Then the question is whether the coachee’s weekends and evenings or lack of time with their loved ones is worth it for that goal. Usually not.

It’s not that the employees aren’t going fast enough or that there is “too much work to be done.” It’s that the company hasn’t put enough resources in place to meet their ambitions. They can either scale back those ambitions and shareholder promises or pressure employees into giving the company time they’re not being paid for. No prizes for guessing what most companies choose. Organisational obsession with velocity is quite often simply greed.

Of course, if you are a proper start up you really do have pressures to launch and scale to a critical mass before you run out of funding. There is real pressure to become profitable or grow your customer base large enough to persuade someone else to give you even more money. This frequently fails and people lose out on their investment, which the tech industry is legendary for shovelling other people’s money into a pit.

Nevertheless, this velocity should be a temporary state of affairs, in my view. It’s unsustainable and unhealthy in the long term. It’s one thing to sprint to the starting line of a marathon, quite another to keep the habit going and try to sprint the whole marathon.

I’m not suggesting deliberately going slow, though making space and time for reflection in business cadences is very important. The sad thing is that large enterprises try to save time in all the wrong places. They bleed time through hours of unnecessary meetings and processes in which small decisions are deferred, delayed or escalated (I was once told to get sign-off from a Managing Director to buy a box of Sharpies). Conversely, committee-based decisions risking millions of dollars can come down the whim of the single HIPPO in the room. (Ironically, that link is a story about Jeff Bezos who famously also wrote about high velocity decision making through one-way and two-way door decisions).

After senior leadership have burnt through time prevaricating, they exhort their staff to work harder and faster. If you’re unlucky enough to work at Meta, you might even be asked to take part in an intense workathon by Mark Zuckerberg creating the ill-conceived metaverse that nobody wants (more on that in a future Doctor’s Note).

The result is burned out staff, poorly executed products and services, and a high likelihood of having to re-do the work in a year’s time. All this because there was “no time or budget for research” or “staff aren’t allowed to talk to customers” (WTF?).

The primary reason, though, is fear. Fear of saying to senior leadership, “I really don’t understand what we’re doing here or why we’re doing it. Can we get some clarity on this?” (Jonah Sachs’s book, Unsafe Thinking, is excellent on this topic).

Almost all the coaching cases in which coachees are pressured are because leadership have no clear vision about what they’re trying to achieve beyond scaling and hitting ever bigger numbers. If you’re a leader who brags on LinkedIn about your ability to “drive” projects and results, consider who you’re actually driving and why. You may well be driving everyone into an early grave.


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Photo by Ray Harrington on Unsplash