Ben Sauer: making the case for slower digital decisions

The digital world has become obsessed by speed. But sometimes, when you move fast you break things…

Warning: Liveblogging. Subject to error, inaccuracy and cries against grammar and syntax. Post will be polished up in the few days after the event.

Ben Sauer is Director of Conversation Design at Babylon Health. He spoke during the afternoon session of NEXT19 on 20th September 2019.

Let’s start with a war between two nations. How can a button that slows everyone down win a war?

Kaizen is a process pioneered by Toyota in Japan, looking for continuous improvement in their processes. Anybody could stop the production line, and initiate a discussion on improvements. It worked. They tried it in the US, and it didn’t work. The middle-managers couldn’t get their heads around the idea of a worker shutting down the line for a chat. In fact, they were producing cars that had mistakes, because they pushed for speed.

The US lost the car war, because they couldn’t slow down.

Today, we are also over-indexing on speed. Many people feel they are pushing Jira tickets up a hill, like Sisyphus, without actually achieving anything.

He make a habit of reading people he disagrees with - like Dominic Cummings, the architect of Brexit. He wrote that many organisations make slow decisions quickly, and quick decisions slowly. Motorsport tells you the value of fast decisions. Design research shows you the value of your taking your time.

The digital world is full of euphemisms for speed.

One of the signs of speed-obsession is “design sprints”. He encountered a manager who confused a “design sprint” with “design”. Others include:

  • The process zealot, who is so obsessed by the process that it becomes proxy for the result.
  • Scientism - using vanity metrics to prove progress. We’re prone to forgetting the human in digital, and using proxy metrics instead. Google analytics does not tell you how you are affecting people’s lives.
  • Moving fast leaves you less time to think. We have a bias to build. When you have a down cycle, fix things or improve things.
  • Unrealistic roadmaps - demanding shiny things often lets to disappointment.

Manoeuvres for better decisions

  • Mind your decision speed - if you make every decision quickly, you prevent deep thought. There are two types of decisions, as Jeff Bezos articulated. One set are really important - and need taking slowly. Some are less important, and easily reversible. Assess how well your decisions have worked out.
  • Know your environment - some of the best decisions came from environments where there’s no pressure to deliver. The more pressure there is to deliver the more often you need slow decisions making. There are four broad groups of organisation - clans (doing things together), Adhocracy (doing things fast), Hierarchy (doing it right) and Markets (getting the job done). All organisation are mix of those.
  • Cultivate listening - the Toyota story above is a micro habit of people getting together and listening. Are their voices in your team that dominate the discussions? Tenderness builds connection, and the right amount is necessary for efficient collaborations.
  • Sweat your vision - when people are being very efficient at producing something, they usually understand it. The Spotify model give steams a lot of autonomy - but you need really strong alignment on purpose. Use a template for the value proposition - if the team all give different answers, you have an issues. And relentless revise you value proposition.

When we see something that works fast and brilliantly, we often forget all the slow work and practice that it took to get there.