Lean. Agile. Scale. Strategic speed. Continuous iteration. Fail fast, learn fast, grow fast… And on and on and on.
These are just some of the buzzwords that dominate entrepreneurial culture, and they are an indication of just how blistering the pace of work is for many organizations. So I want to pose a question: Does the obsessive drive for speed, growth, and efficiency come with a human cost?
I believe it does, and I see it play out almost every day.
I have spent most of my career working with and leading supply chain organizations, where the pressure to be fast and lean is particularly intense. I see it in the exhausted transportation manager who laments the fact that he has over 55 new emails waiting for him when he wakes up in the morning, even though he checks his email right before he goes to bed at midnight and wakes up at 4 a.m. I see it in the ailing sales director who lost feeling in half of his face because of the stress of hitting his sales numbers. And each of us knows people who enter their workplaces every day just hoping to make it through the chaos of modern life.
To me, this points to something important: We must pay greater attention to the value systems that drive how we work, because it is these values that ultimately determine whether our work contributes to human flourishing – to the lifelong pursuit of meaning and fulfillment that all of us are engaged in – or detracts from it.
Consider the value systems behind the obsession for organizational speed and efficiency. While these might be worthy characteristics for an organization to pursue in the right context, we should be careful not to press their merits too far. I think deep down, we know this to be true. We all know, for instance, that our most cherished relationships in life are often developed over long periods of time spent in face-to-face community. Further, the virtues of patience and leisure often produce our most deeply satisfying joys – such as taking a long walk in the mountains or reading an inspiring novel. To focus only on fast and efficient closes these possibilities to an organization.
And what about moral formation and character development? This might be the realm of human experience most resistant to the merits of “lean” and “agile.” The human heart is a particularly stubborn organ, often requiring long seasons of struggle and stagnation to change direction.
As a follower of Jesus professionally engaged in the world of entrepreneurship, it is this last realm of morality and character that is the most difficult for me. I think we need to be critically aware of a paradox that most of us confront daily: While we work in fast-paced environments that strive for speed and efficiency above all else, God largely works in more subtle ways.
Centuries ago, I think Jesus might have been saying as much in a parable recorded in Mark 4 that I have found myself returning to regularly. Ironically, Jesus drew upon first century commercial language (farming and agriculture) to make two points about how the Kingdom of God – which he states elsewhere is “in you” – grows. First, it grows mysteriously, just like a farmer dutifully plants a seed and works the soil, but whether he wakes or sleeps “the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how” (Mark 4:27). Second, it grows gradually, just like the earth produces over time “first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head” (Mark 4:28).
Mysteriously and gradually… Maybe these are two words that we could stand to re-introduce into our vocabularies. As we work in places obsessed with speed and efficiency, let us counteract the potential human toll of such environments by cultivating deeper virtues with those around us. Process matters – and over the long-haul, it’s usually the slower, less efficient processes that matter the most.