The Challenge of Pacing Productivity

“My life is not this steeply sloping hour in which you see me hurrying.”
Rainer Maria Rilke

Photo by Steven Lelham on Unsplash

by Steve Boehlke

ave you ever trained for an endurance event — maybe a marathon or a triathlon? I can still hear Tom Lane, the captain of the marathon training team I ran with for several years, yelling “hold back!” as the pack with which I was running inevitably surged, accelerating the pace of our long distance training runs. Some of us just couldn’t help ourselves; we wanted to run faster as well as further. We would defy training protocols and forget about pacing. The consequences were not always immediate, but they were inevitable. We could not sustain our momentum, despite our best intentions.

As a global leadership consultant, I have travelled extensively in my work. Perhaps it’s therefore understandable that when family and friends inquire about how my work is going, they most frequently ask, “Where are you flying next week?” Asked that question frequently enough, I too readily came to equate the delivery of my work with whether or not I was rushing to the airport once again. If I am not participating in-person in another ExCo meeting or leadership offsite, I must not be working hard enough. The pandemic pause has prompted me to reflect more than ever on my professional presence and proficiency. And the pace of my productivity.

Whether at work or at play, the pace of our world today is demanding in a relentless sort of way, the constraints of the pandemic quarantine notwithstanding. If I do not appear to be highly active, performing and producing according to the standards of the environment which engulfs me, I feel inadequate, if not outright useless. I may be doing hard things and even appear successful, but what is the significance of my pervasive activity? The drive for success, quick success at that, easily overshadows deeper, more enduring qualities of achievement, whether running a marathon or working with a team of senior executives.

Photo by Amr Taha™ on Unsplash

For many years, I’ve worked extensively with senior leaders in large, global corporate R&D organisations. I’ve become acutely aware of the speed and cost at which new products or new compounds move through the development pipeline and the “stage gates” which mark the progress of such development. If an R&D organisation hits 90% of its stage gate targets in a given year, meaning that they have advanced new product concepts through a review process that 90% of the time is accomplished on the planned schedule and within budget, they often declare success.

But could such success metrics actually overshadow more substantial criteria, such as risk management, willingness to fail, and — most importantly — noticing and capitalising on unanticipated outcomes or innovative breakthroughs? The pace of productivity is not always aligned with the most desired or valued outcomes, even in an apparently successful R&D lab.

Regrettably, in many highly productive environments today, whether in fintech, R&D, gaming or even education, leaders equate the speed with which one is moving, combined with the effort to keep in motion, to high performance, regardless of alignment with deeper purpose or personal values. Call centres handle a higher volume of customer inquiries faster than ever with AI, but navigating the automated menus can be a virtual nightmare for the frustrated customer. A Google search generates required information at lightning speed, but time to think and reflect is scarce. I receive almost hourly tweets from a respected leader “on retreat” updating anyone who will follow on social media his attempt to take a “time out”. What’s wrong with this picture?

The drive for success, quick success at that, easily overshadows deeper, more enduring qualities of achievement.

As another January creeps onto my digital calendar with appointments and meetings, invites and deadlines, reminders and prompts, my mind is easily seduced into the anticipated rapid pace of what is ahead. Opportunities abound and challenges persist. As I continue to move among the extraordinarily talented people who comprise The Room or are affiliated with African Leadership Group in one way or another, I recognise and am challenged by the aggregate intellectual horsepower, the technical acuity and professional presence that is so very evident. The capacity to do hard things is prominent. AND attention to pacing in order to go the distance required is critical.

In establishing your priorities and managing your pace in this new year, consider these possibilities:

  1. That which appears unproductive may be very significant. Ask yourself or notice, “When was the last time you were caught in the act of thinking on the job?” A reflective practice optimises deliverables in the long run, whatever they may be.
  2. Personal identity precedes productivity. This is a fundamental principle of high performance. The courage to be is rarer today than the impulse to do. I am not merely the person you see in motion, working hard to have impact. My values and clarity about my mission impact productivity.
  3. Quality of time differs from quantity of time. The Greeks distinguish between chronos and kairos, two kinds of time. The latter, kairos, refers to the critical or opportune time, which may never recur. Recognising the kairos moment requires some measure of stillness or a pause in the action.

Have you found, as I have, that the older you become the faster time seems to fly by? The urge to do more quickly appears in my all too active ego. Don’t hurry! Find the cadence that is right for you. Be attentive to your pacing and encourage others as well to notice what they fail to notice. Pace your productivity exceptionally this year!

Remember, it is not that we have so much to do that we cannot find time to think and act as leaders; on the contrary, it is because we do not think and act as leaders that we have so much to do.”

— Peter Koestenbaum, philosopher, leadership coach and consultant, author

Founder and President of SFB Associates, a global leadership consulting practice, Steve Boehlke has 40 years of experience working with leaders around the world. As a leading voice in The Room, Steve’s gift for enabling people to develop leadership capabilities through a greater awareness of themselves and their world is unparalleled.

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