Speed is often hailed as the key virtue in business. Especially in tech business speed has been idolized to the extent that it found its way into that now infamous company motto “Move fast and break things” – a motto that has lost a lot of its allure. It is interesting to understand why that is. Is it because of the “break things”? One could understand if someone who breaks things fast is not universally appreciated, but I really think that papers over what the real issue is here. If the tech industry is interested in addressing the political concerns increasingly raised about it, we can probably benefit from looking more closely at the politics of speed. Here are three tentative hypotheses that I think are worthwhile to consider.
(i) At a certain size speed is indistinguishable from arrogance.
This proposition suggests that speed most always be viewed relative to size, and with relative size in mind. If you are the biggest – or even the fastest growing – actor in a market, your speed increasingly will change not just the technology or even the competitive dynamics – it changes the very foundations of the market you are in – the trustworthiness and balance that the market needs to survive. At that point you move from being a single fast actor to becoming a systemic imbalance.
It is very hard to see where that threshold lies, but it is clear that the undeniable strategic advantage conferred on a company through speed follows the paradoxical logic that Edward Luttwak observes govern all agonistic processes. Luttwak writes:
In the entire realm of strategy, therefore, a course of action cannot persist indefinitely. It will instead tend to evolve into its opposite, unless the entire logic of strategy is outweighed by some externally induced change in the circumstances of the participants.
This is profound, and Luttwaks concept of the culminating point of victory, in which victory starts to degrade into defeat, is a concept far too rarely applied to the logic of business.
The second proposition is something I have written about previously, and that is that we need to understand relative speeds much better:
(ii) Relative speed matters more than absolute speed in the politics of speed.
This is trivial, but sometimes neglected. When your company or the development of a technology moves much faster than the surrounding society, you will have some advantages – regulators will be reticent to regulate fast moving industries and you will be able to use the escape velocity to largely remain in “the honeymoon of the entrepreneur”-phase of development – but those advantages will come with a price that needs to be paid when innovation slows down, when you start touting what is really features as if were they exciting product launches and when the field you are innovating in reaches a plateau. And it will — the option to keep accelerating is taken of the table by the aggregated complexity in any sufficiently interesting technology.
Relative speed – the escape velocity many tech companies achieve at some point in hyper growth – comes with a specific kind of blindness for consequences and political debt piling up; avoid this if possible by at least preparing for the landing. Acceleration political debt is due in deceleration.
The third hypothesis is more of an observation:
(iii) Speed compounds into rhythmic complexity.
There is almost never a single speed in a company, and when you the different actors in a market and the speed of society overall, you don’t only end up with broad pace layers, but interacting systems run in different rhythms. This in turn creates a special kind of complexity – rhythmic complexity – that increases the risk of “normal accidents”. And this brings us to the last extra hypothesis you get for reading this far:
(iv) Failures caused by speed are socially and reputationally more costly than other failures of ambition overall.
If a company fails because it was moving too fast it will be far worse off than if it fails for any other reason. Speed signals self-confidence and, as we have noted, a certain arrogance. Failures in that mode are much more damning than failures that come from trying something really hard.
The politics of speed are essential when working with public policy overall, but for those of us who think through tech issues speed can sometimes even be existential.