Counteracting Our Obsession with Speed

In the quest to get as close as possible to the speed of light for faster decision making, it appears some companies are moving too fast and thus making very costly mistakes. When windows of time are compressed to near zero, there’s no recovery time for critical errors.  In fact, for some decisions (especially those of a strategic nature) it’s much better to take it slow.

Courtesy of Flickr. By Theseanster93

In baseball, scouts love to find pitchers that can throw “the heater”.  Prospects that can throw near 100 mph a few times a game are coveted over those who can rarely top 90.  The mantra for pitchers now is; “throw it faster and see if hitters can keep up”.

However, there’s a renewed interest in knuckleballers, or those pitchers who throw a pitch with little to no spin. For these pitchers, the ball is supposed to “dance” on its way to home plate at speeds of 60-70 miles per hour. For baseball hitters, trying to track down a dancing knuckleball is extremely tough. It’s hard to track the lively movement of the knuckleball, much less adjust to low speed at which they’re thrown.

Why the revived interest in knuckleball pitchers? Sports Illustrated writer Phil Taylor says; “(In baseball) we need the knuckleball to help counteract the obsession with speed, to prove there still is a place for nuance and skill.”

Phil Taylor has it exactly right –in baseball and in the business world.

Our world is obsessed with speed. Faster food, hurry up offenses in football, faster computers, and even faster war-making. As I have detailed before, it’s everything—faster.

But conversely, sometimes moving too fast is dangerous. There are some decisions that should not be made too quickly, especially those that could benefit from more data collection, or decisions where there is ambiguity and complexity. United States President Barack Obama mentioned in a Vanity Fair article; “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable…so you wind up dealing with probabilities, and any given decision you make you’ll wind up with 30-40% chance that it isn’t going to work.”

Even when speed is deemed a competitive advantage, sometimes faster isn’t better. For example, Knight Capital Group lost $440 million dollars when a “technology malfunction” launched erroneous trades on their behalf.  Trading at near the speed of light, there simply wasn’t enough time to recover from the initial errors leaving Knight with nearly a $500 million loss in the span of just 45 minutes.

The need for speed comes at a price of compressed decision making windows and non-recoverability for critical errors. Worse, when errors from a few players cascade through complex systems, the feedback effects can severely damage all participants in the ecosystem. It’s as if the butterfly flapping its wings really does bring about category four hurricanes.

Not every decision needs to be made faster. There will always be a place for decisions made with “skill and nuance”, where it’s important to slow down, see the bigger picture, and adjust our swing and timing for the occasional erratic knuckleball thrown our way