The Gift of Time

As I write this in late 2017, Walmart is successfully competing with Amazon online. It’s about time! No, really, it is about time. Walmart didn’t snap its happy fingers last quarter and find a solution; it started working on the “internet thing” years ago with some false starts and many headlines saying it was failing. Maybe not! I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Amazon’s capacity to destroy old-line businesses, but there’s finally some news that companies can fight back.

I asked a CEO I know about his recent board meeting, and he was pleased. His board recognized that he has continued to grow revenue and profits in an industry that many headlines would indicate is in deep doo-doo. When I asked him why he was winning, he said, “Because of investments I made in programs and infrastructure three to five years ago.” He also chose a different strategy than most of his peers — one that takes longer to execute. Luckily, this private company’s shareholders are patient.

Don’t change leadership and strategy as frequently as underwear. They often take time to get traction.

As I’ve written before, I’m fascinated with the dichotomies one must manage when running a successful enterprise. Perhaps the most challenging is the one between speed and patience.

Speed is often a critical advantage in product development, delivery times, communication, manufacturing and human service. But patience is the key to many investments, solving complex problems, gaining skills, and planning and building relationships.

We’re prone, however, to mix these up. Quick fixes to a worn out business strategy are as effective as the “6-Hour Broccoli Diet.” You don’t learn leadership in a 30-minute podcast nor do you respond to customer complaints at a snail’s pace.

When my oldest son was little and we dined out, he’d ask us if it was a “fast food” or “slow food” restaurant (preferring fast food at that point in his life). I appreciate that as I have a bias for speed in many business activities, because I often believe there’s no real return by gathering more knowledge, involving more people, or consulting more experts when you’re really avoiding or delaying a tough decision.

However, slowing down to ask the right questions before changing strategy, understanding the problem before “solving” it, exploring customer needs, or getting to know the candidate you’re about to hire are good examples of areas when patience trumps speed.

A preparatory question to ask yourself before making a decision or taking a critical action is, “Will more information help me make a materially better decision, or am I delaying because I’m avoiding a tough issue?” Or, in terms my young son would’ve understood, “Is this a fast issue or a slow issue?”

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