A Case for Slow Business

We are killing ourselves, slowly but surely, because we are obsessed with the idea of speed. We need to get more done, we think, and to achieve this goal we need to move faster. It is a need it now, get it done, 24/7, globalised world where adrenaline-fuelled financiers and assorted Type-A types, measure everything, and everyone, with narrow numbers and questionable costs.

Education, for example, is now less about socialisation, character building, values or the cultivation of thinking for the sheer pleasure of it. It is now more about measurable outcomes, examination results and fast-track entry into the world of paid-work. Schools are now factories that buy in materials at the lowest cost and throw out students that do not fit, or question, this standardised model.

This is quarterly capitalism gone mad. A giddy world where short-term financial gains for the select few are huge, but so too are the longer-term costs for everyone else. It is a world where profits are privatised, but costs, especially those measured in terms of long-term damage to the environment, to individual human health and to local communities are shared by all.

Our obsession with speed is especially prevalent within the new economy, the online economy, which, it seems to me, is all about our greed for immediate attention and instant gratification.

The personal web, along with personal technology, is about fast downloads, real-time updates, quick pixelated fixes and an almost autistic focus on me right now, which very often has little relationship to reality because me right now is filtered, digitally enhanced, and photo-shopped. This is a world where connection and familiarity are rising, but one in which context, deep thinking, quiet reflection, sustained focus and above all human intimacy are declining.

Of course, in an accelerated world, nothing lasts for long. Remember Second Life, MySpace, Orkut or Friendster? Many people don’t. Many people also fail to recognise that companies such as these – and the people than run them – can go from hero to zero faster than a freshly qualified accountant can say wasting asset.

But that’s OK, because in an accelerated world our collective memory is measured in minutes and we don’t remember things, especially things that go bad, don’t work or end up hurting us.

Take the current financial crisis, for example. This was caused by the creation of easy money – we made it too easy for people to borrow money. So what are we doing right now? We are making it too easy to borrow money – we are bailing out bust banks (and then forcing them to lend), subsidising borrowers and taxing creditors – all with the effect, as far as I can see, of making pre-existing structural deficits even worse.

We fall for myths like the one that says: “things are different this time”, so we end up being spun in an endless cycle of unrealistic promises, targets and goals, few of which ever come true or, if they do, the human costs can be immense.

None of this is sustainable, in my view. Our obsession with speed, with short-term thinking and narrowly defined outcomes is moving society backwards, not forwards, at an accelerating rate. Furthermore, our need for speed is disorientating and dividing us, much as the primacy of the individual and of individual rights is undermining community and society as a whole.

I’m sure that most people are familiar with the idea of Slow Food and perhaps Slow Cities. What I’d like to promote, therefore, is the idea of Slow Business and in particular Slow Management and Slow Leadership.

What I’d like to suggest is the idea that if we moved slower, thought more and did less, we would not only end up getting more done, but that we’d all be healthier and happier too.

I doubt whether most individuals or institutions are ready for this. Some are. Family businesses and cooperatives think along similar lines already. But I doubt whether many, if any, quoted companies can deal with the idea. No problem. Change can start anywhere and eventually even the world’s largest organisations will, I suspect, be forced to try something new.

So what does Slow Business look like?

To my mind it is the leading or managing of economic activity that incorporates the principles of slow thinking. It is calm, reflective, untroubled and most of all has its eyes firmly set upon a distant objective.

Fundamentally, it looks at things from a whole cost point of view. It does not buy the cheapest, especially when this has a high social cost, and it looks at the wider and longer-term impacts of economic activity. It measures things differently and focuses first and foremost on employees rather than customers, because if employees are not treated well how can they possibly make customers happy?

So, without further elaboration, here are my five principles of Slow Business.

1) Full social and environmental accounting

We must end our obsession with quarterly earnings and 12-month ‘results’. We should think more in terms of 10 and 20-year plans and link these plans more closely with social, human and environmental costs. For example, Spain and Southern Europe are seen as being “uncompetitive” by Northern Europe. On what basis? If you measure everything with GDP then sure. But if you measure social cohesion or happiness then perhaps it’s they that are uncompetitive.

2) A sense of provenance and place

I think Globalisation as an idea is unravelling. I have no issue with the free movement of capital, goods, people or ideas, but I believe that people have a right to be told where things are coming from physically and metaphorically. If they are given this information behaviour might change in favour of more local options. People may choose not to buy certain things, because they believe that products are travelling too far (environmental costs) or perhaps they won’t like the objectives or purpose of a company (social costs).

Provenance is really about adapting the language and information already used by food and especially wine companies and applying this to industrial products and services. Essentially, it’s about caring about and communicating by whom, where, how and when things are produced. Most of all, it is about knowing who you are, where you have come from and where you are heading as an organisation. And to do all this one must be physically and mentally embedded in a particular place.

3) A sense of fairness

Employees don’t want very much. They want money, meaning, recognition and respect. But they also want fairness. If a leader creates value I have no problem with them being well paid. Equally, I have no issue with inventors or entrepreneurs earning millions, even billions, when they create something that’s very useful. But I do have an issue with leaders (including politicians) being paid for mediocre results, especially over an extended period.

I would like to propose that people at the head of organisations are paid no more than 50 times what the lowest paid worker is paid unless they can demonstrate, without question, that an idea they have had has resulted in a desirable outcome. I would also like to propose that an outcome is directly related to something of substance, ideally something that is created not something that is traded or speculated.

4) Recognise the importance of doing nothing

This is perhaps the most important idea. At the moment we are wedded to the thought that every minute of the day must be productively used. For example, that physical and mental presence is a prerequisite of employment. This is nonsense. Looking out of the window for an extended period, for instance, could be the most productive thing that someone does if it results in a good idea.

Similarly, doing nothing in the sense of sleeping or resting is hugely under-rated. Let’s bring back the siesta and spread it across the world because rest is essential, not only to proper physical and mental health, but also to the creation of new insights and ideas. Anyone that knows anything about creativity will recognise that it is only when we switch off or do nothing that ideas and insights come. In short, if you want an idea you need to stop trying to have one and the best way to do this is to stop working for a while.

Hence I would like to propose that we not only bring back or introduce the office siesta but that companies insist that all employees take their full holiday allowance and are not contactable when on vacation. In fact you should get fired for not going away. In a similar vein I’d suggest that we ritualise the switching off of work related mobile devices when at home and that we insist that once a week, at least, we have a Tech-No day, where employees are forced to meet in person or write letters not emails.

5) Eat lunch

A link directly back to Slow Food. We need to eat, but we seem also to need to justify the time spent doing it.  Sometimes we sit alone at our computer while we eat a sandwich. Sometimes we miss lunch altogether: we go to the gym to work out aggression before plunging back into work. Why?  When, indeed, eating in the middle of the day is a natural and healthy moment to do so — sustaining energy, allowing digestion and feeding conversation.

We need to reclaim lunch. It is where loyalties are built and where ideas are exchanged. We should therefore think about lunch more.  Employers should value employees as people who need to eat.  Employees should value employers as people for whose sake – among others – they eat.  And maybe the ritual meal, the nourishing meal, the creative meal, food not as a weakness, but as collaboration tool, can come back into business.

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4 Responses to A Case for Slow Business

  1. Ed Kless says:

    Much to agree with in this post.

    I was reminded of a quote from Peter Block – Speed is indifferent to destination.

  2. Nils Davis says:

    I like the tenor of this idea, and agree that the world needs to change as you’ve described in order to survive, or at least to survive happily. I believe this also aligns with the thinking of Umair Haque, whom I assume you know of – he especially has the concept of “thick value,” which covers a lot of your points 1 and 3 – full accounting and creating something desirable and of high quality.

    Just started reading your blog and newsletter, and looking forward to many more insights!

  3. Max Kaehn says:

    A Slow Business should then create corporate debt in the form of ten-, twenty-, and thirty-year bonds (which would of course need to be backed by insurance in case the company goes bankrupt), which would get insurers to develop actuarial models for the long-term health of a business. Then you make the corporate bonds an attractive investment for retirement funds.

    You’ll also need a corporate charter for the Slow Business that makes it explicit that its duty is to long-term prosperity, not short-term profits, so it can’t be sued for failing to maximize shareholder value. Jobs at such businesses would then be attractive to people who like to think in the long term…

  4. hupovoy says:

    cool. my business is performing, paragraph 2, 4, 5. left to take care of 1 and 3

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