Turning the Tide

Originally Published in Fair Value

Shortly After Taking Office, President Joe Biden gave a speech on the progress of the Covid-19 vaccination program. He offered hope for a July 4th Independence Day and asked that all Americans work together, playing their part to help reinstate the personal freedoms that we previously took for granted. In a refreshingly candid response to those who would lift restrictions immediately, he summarised the prerequisite with one word.

President Biden Coming Into Office

President Biden was addressing a particular and immediate issue, and his approach was more driven by scientific advice than any deeper reflection. His reasoning was simply that to secure the progress already made, we needed time for more people to be vaccinated, time to assess the impact on transmission, and time for the tide to irreversibly turn.

But listening to the speech, I was struck not so much by his welcome appeals to common cause and collective endeavor, but by the contrast between his plea for patience and the expectations of progress that we have come to expect. Indeed, he himself had set ambitious goals for his first “hundred days” in office, a phrase that’s commonplace in the world of business, fueled by the belief that pace is vital to success.

First 100 Days in Office

There is much truth in this view. While the Hundred Days slogan can be an overused catchphrase, its underlying principle is that progress requires affirmative action; and that indecision at moments of change leads only to entrenchment and resistance. Or in plainer Anglo-Saxon, sleepy organizations sometimes need a kick up the proverbial…!

Few businesses making an acquisition or merger today would be encouraged by their advisors to reflect on the intricacies of every adjustment they propose to make. The mainstream view is that if the consequence of pace is occasionally some collateral damage results, then this needs to be seen in the context of the counterfactual stasis that comes with prevarication.

Moore’s Law and it’s Effect

We believe, too, that change is coming ever faster. As long ago as the 1960s, Gordon Moore predicted that the power of integrated circuit boards would double every couple of years, leading to exponential digital progress. Only now is Moore’s Law reaching its threshold, with compound (not absolute) rates beginning to slow. The advance in technology is unquestionably the most transformative change of the last half-century; its reach touches every aspect of our lives, from medicine to machinery, warfare to welfare, education to employment.

But I wonder if we are not sometimes too dazzled by the consultants, the statistics, and an over-emphasis on digital technology as the benchmark of change.

Change Takes Time

In writing Fair Value, I have reflected deeply on the beliefs underpinning my life and career. And the most striking thing is not how much they have altered but rather how little they haveā€”and how gradual and considered their evolution has been. We do not transform our beliefs overnight, and nor can our behaviors which is true of our societies and the communities and organizations (individual or collective), adapt in the way of digital components. The which are their constituent parts.

The reality is that more profound change takes time.

Business Change Takes Time

The values and instincts which guide our paths are deeply embedded. Our sense of community, the people we love, our faiths, and our aspirations. All these do not alter at speed. This is why dictatorships have consistently failed to suppress a desire for freedom-or for that matter, why new democracies often face resistance from within. In business, the idea that we can culturally transform organizations in short order is usually a recipe for disappointment, if not outright failure.

None of this is to suggest we should not address injustices with the urgency they deserve. The slow progress on issues such as gender equality, diversity and inclusion, educational opportunity, and true meritocracy is a stain on our democracies. It is right that we demand progress and call out those organizations that make only token efforts, just as we should look at ourselves and be honest in declaring the ways we might do more.

The environmental crisis is a case in point; there is a clear responsibility to make bold changes today, even if the impacts will not be felt for decades to come; that’s exactly why we need to act now. But even then, we need also to be patient and mindful that parts of the world are less well placed to take the radical steps we might wish to see and less well informed of the consequences of delay.

Patience is Not Always Easy

Meanwhile, we are all impatient for those changes that are dear to our hearts. Like those who would ease the pandemic restrictions tomorrow, I, too, have concerns that I wish were addressed more swiftly. In the US and the Europe, there are whole regions that have been left behind by the impacts of globalization. Their people want action, a reversal of the trend, a recognition that what’s been lost needs replacing with more than just hope.

I have my doubts about the swift achievability of that goal, for experience has shown it to be an intractable problem. As with so many of the challenges we face, the ways forward are myriad and often untravelled, and in common with the opening theme of this piece, they will take time.

In writing these essays, I’ve come to pursue change for the good,

increasingly to understand that we must first and foremost set our compass to the values that offer the best opportunities for hope and flourishing. For only this way can we navigate the paths that will inevitably lead us in less than straight lines? We also need to recognize that time is part of the equation of progress and that a little patience can help us resolve it more neatly and completely than our restless natures might wish.

The tide, as they say, will turn only on its hour.

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