Tortoise above Venetian lagoon, Melchior Lorch, 1555

"Expect the skunkworks to fizzle after stinking up the joint."

Project Management's first principle, often ignored, insists that one must Hasten Slowly, for even The Ancients understood that each human activity held a natural cadence, worthy of respect, and that attempts to violate that rhythm reliably produced calamity. The human brain seems most skilled at imagining utter impossibilities. We experience an inconvenience and easily imagine better, faster, and cheaper ways to achieve that end, means which seem likely to produce less inconvenience. In practice, most of the time (not by any means all of the time) we produce greater calamity when attempting to speed up things. We shave subtle essentials like testing, for instance, which seems to produce no immediate value, even further slowing development when productive resource gets sidetracked fixing pesky bugs. We remain steadfastly capable of reducing any effort down to apparent essentials, eliminating what we, under duress, easily classify as trivial distractions, deferring any deeper appreciation of O-ring chemistry, for instance, until an even more inconvenient time. We take great pride at 'making our date.'

HasteningQuickly becomes ever more seductive when experiencing a critical necessity, like during a pandemic.
Then, the urge to rush around chopping off chicken heads becomes essentially overwhelming. Sudden experts in the field extend endless bits of well-intended good advice, asking at least mildly demeaning questions about why this and why not that. The undisciplined leader easily caves under the ever-growing pressure and enlists a so-called task force comprised of experts from unrelated fields; these days, inevitably some industry based in Silicon Valley, proudly professed, professional disrupters. These poor souls get tasked to quickly (always quickly) invent a new, improved wheel technology capable of transforming the sorry, centuries-old principles of wheel fabrication, and to also produce a fast-track means for bringing a few hundred million of these marvels to immediate market. Damn the rhythm of wheel-making, fuller speed ahead!

The naive leader then announces a major immediately impending breakthrough just before this sorry task force manages to muster its first meeting, adding further pressure to the process. Of course, the task force members must first curse whatever tradition they're up against, just as if a craft cared about naive critique. Experienced experts never receive invitations to collaborate with the whiz kids, since they could only contribute conservative stodge and the job as assigned insists that the task force run around with scissors and break things. Expertise is the enemy of this kind of innovation, which relies upon high pressure steam power. They don't call it a skunkworks for nothing. The prudent will stay steadfastly upwind of this effort.

The most threatened leader might muster several dozen such task forces, relying upon competitive pressure to further fuel fast innovation. A rich prize, like lifetime exclusive worldwide patent rights, might also dangle near the end to absolutely ensure that no friendly relationship could contribute anything to the effort. "We will have a vaccine by September," he confidently declares in dulcet, Confidence Man tones. "We'll have conquered the virus by early next year." The old, newly discredited hands, those who deeply understand and respect the natural rhythm of these things, sing to Congress, but suddenly seem like so many unimaginative neigh-sayers when compared to those more experienced in the fine, dark art of magical thinking. Hasten Slowly, the ancients insisted, for they'd built temples that fell down all by themselves long before they learned to respect the rhythms of this place.

Each generation firmly believes themselves especially blessed: their insights more blinding, their intuition much more reliable than any old inscrutable formal calculus. They say, "We've got this," and they do, but just what they've got won't actually shine through until after their own, personal calamity ensues. They HastenQuickly toward their own enlightenment, after which the following generation will even more quickly discount their sorry experience, naively believing that they can do better, faster, and cheaper even better, faster, and cheaper than their immediate forebears. This meta-rhythm also seems eternal. Those leaders fortunate enough to inherit only tractable challenges and those leaders insistent enough to deflect the clamor for revolutionary skunkworks task forces will Hasten Slowly and deliver closer to on time, though few will feel moved to watch them then. The crowds will attend to the calamity machine, the HasteningQuickly crowd. Expect some tortoise laboring in some basement lab to solve this puzzle. Expect the skunkworks to fizzle after stinking up the joint.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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