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  • Writer's pictureHubert Saint-Onge

Balancing “fast” and “slow” thinking for a more effective use of time

When I was recently reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, it occurred to me that the principles he was presenting have significant implications for how senior leaders spend their time.

Your own management practice to optimize your use of time

There are two factors to consider in aiming to make better use of time:

1. How you structure your activity (and that of the team)

2. How you manage yourself (your demeanour/comportment)

This second dimension is probably more important than the first one. You first need to determine how you will conduct yourself. It might be useful to see this as having the choice to adopt two speeds: “fast” and “slow”.

The first speed, or high gear, is meant for dealing quickly with the transactional aspects of your work. This is where you adopt a highly purposeful demeanour. This is when you deal with the matters at hand quickly and the people you interact with sense that you are moving things along at a fast pace so they bring up their speed a couple of notches in interacting with you.

The second speed is the low gear where you are more thoughtful and where you take your time to work things through in a methodical manner. It is important to detect when it is best to be working at one or the other of these speeds. You are likely to become ineffective when you inter-mingle them. For instance, people who tend to be consistently thoughtful and friendly might have a propensity to opt for the second speed. People see that and act accordingly. As a result, meetings take longer.

When you make the decision to structure your time according to these two speeds, the challenge that you face is that the time you have set aside for thinking and planning is encroached upon by all sorts of transactional events that cause disruptions and waste the opportunity created for more thoughtful time. Email is likely the main culprit for this inter-mingling. I believe it is important to declare “email-free zones” where you disable the “bings” on your tablet and resist the temptation to get back to people immediately – the idea is not to take on transactional work when you are in “slow” thinking mode. It is the time that you spend in this mode that allows you to be fast when you move to your transactional mode.

My sense is that the discomfort often experienced with the right balancing of fast and slow thinking stems from the fear that you could be making wrong decisions or be heading in the wrong direction if you do not give yourself the chance to sort things out in “slow” thinking mode. This is when you feel rushed and uncertain, and the resulting chaos saps your energy. This issue also often translates into feeling that you are not in control of your agenda. You then become a cork on a fast-flowing river of inbound requests, calls and meetings – you lose control of your agenda and no longer have time set aside to plan and sort things out.

Managing through the team

To make the best use of time, it is often useful for a senior manager to manage through the team instead of having to spend a lot of time with team members individually. The need to make a distinction between “speeds” also applies to your team meetings. The “ideal” structure of these team meetings is as follows:

1. The tactical meeting (sometimes weekly, sometimes more often depending on the pace of change) takes the form of a quick round-robin with no agenda (this is purely transactional, in high gear). No time is spent discussing the issues in depth. Just enough is said for a quick diagnostic and for delegating action to the right people for them to work it out.

2. The coordinative meeting (held either bi-weekly or monthly) is highly structured with a tight agenda. This involves moving from the third gear to the second gear. This is when you review the ongoing business performance as well as the performance of the key project. No item should take more than 30 minutes. Subjects that prove to be difficult, are not readily resolved or get to an impasse are put in the follow-through column and people are asked to find solutions outside the meeting with the mandate to return when the issues have been worked through. Documents must be distributed 2 days ahead of the meeting or else the item is discussed at the following meeting. Participants are expected to have read the material ahead of the meeting and the presentation time is kept to no more than 10 minutes in order to leave time for a thorough discussion.

3. There is also, I believe, the need for a management team to work in first gear at a strategic level where the main focus is on thinking together about longer-term challenges. This meeting is best run away from the office, is tightly less structured and takes on a more thoughtful tempo. It could start on the first day after lunch and end the next day in the afternoon. This type of meeting could take place once or twice a year.

It will be important for you to determine to what extent the leadership team needs to have “strategic” meetings where the discussion is less structured and more reflective. These meetings should help elevate the strategic thinking in the team and provide for greater alignment. At some point, it will be important to assess the strategy and determine whether it needs to be sharpened or adjusted in any way.


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