At Microsoft, one of the common cultural tropes was that no meeting ever started on time; being perpetually late was an accepted norm. And while plenty has been written about productivity loss and respect and all the other downsides of being late to a meeting, I want to talk about something slightly different. I’d like to suggest that constantly running late actually is the cause, not the symptom, of one of the largest problems of modern companies: the tendency not to fix known problems.
Let’s start with some science. In a 1973 experiment by Darley and Batson, a group of seminary students were recruited to participate in a study they were told was about measuring religious beliefs. After filling out religiosity questionnaires in Building A, they were told to go to Building B to do one of two tasks: give a talk about seminary jobs or give a sermon on the parable of The Good Samaritan. In addition, students were told they were either a little early, right on time, or running late.
Here’s the twist: on the way from Building A to Building B, the researchers had planted an actor who appeared to be in respiratory distress, slumped on the ground while coughing and groaning. That was the true measure of the study: when confronted by an opportunity to help the sick, what determined whether students would stop to help or step over them and keep going?
The first possible determinant of who stopped was how the seminary students viewed religion and themselves. Perhaps those who resonated with the social mission of Christ or believed deeply in service might be more likely to render aid? Alas, no. Despite people’s mistaken belief that goodness is some sort of mostly internal attribute, helping or not didn’t seem to be based on anything they measured about a person’s beliefs or character.
The second possibility was that what the student was going to speak on would persuade them to stop. A quick reminder on the Parable of the Good Samaritan. When asked about God’s desire for kindness, Jesus tells the story of a man who is beaten and robbed, then left by the side of the road. A priest, and then a priest’s assistant, see the man and don’t stop to help. A third man, the titular Samaritan, was part of an ethnic group that should have hated the beaten man. But it is he who stops to heal and help, taking the beaten man to a nearby home and paying for his care. And it is this Good Samaritan, says Jesus, who is going to heaven.
So surely this will work. Here these seminary students are, about to go give a talk about the importance of helping those in need. Surely this, of all possible interventions, will make them stop. But, of course, it doesn’t. Whether the student is going to give a talk about seminary jobs or saving people has absolutely no effect on whether they help.
What does matter is the most dramatically simple of interventions: how rushed do they feel? If they felt early, they stopped to help. If they were running late, they stepped right over the wounded actor and kept moving.
I’ll admit to always being a little amused by the image of the highly pious student rushing off to give a talk about helping people while literally stepping over someone who needs help. Rather like The Mayor in Chocolat, it is hard not to see the tragic comedy in such a juxtaposition between our stated intentions and our actions. And I’m not laughing at them, as much as with them: I’ve been the modern equivalent of the hurried seminary student, a hundred times over.
For those that have spent some time with my Competing Pressures Design framework, another way of stating this result is that the promoting pressures (personality and religious doctrine) are massively outweighed by the inhibiting pressure (feeling rushed). It is one of the reasons I love this experiment: it is such a vivid depiction of how much environment matters.
I would argue that most modern employees want to be good: at our jobs and as people. We recognize that human experience matters and want to be positive bosses and coworkers and employees. We want our customers to feel honored and respected and get what they need. And we want to do the right thing. The promoting pressures are not the problem.
But there is a reason we are late to meetings. Most workers will tell you that they are constantly hurried, with never enough time to do everything. We all feel like we’re running late, all of the time, and this is one of the single most powerful inhibiting pressures around. Although I started by talking about Microsoft, I’d argue the problem is even worse at startups, where you are always racing your funding runway and mostly feeling like you’re losing.
Much of modern innovation work (particularly innovation consulting) is predicated on the idea that people simply can’t see problems, that they are unable to respond to potential disruption because they don’t believe that it will happen. I don’t share that belief, but even if you do, there is no denying that most businesses have a large number of visible problems that go unsolved. And what I’m suggesting is that the reason those problems go largely unfixed is not for lack of ability or empowerment or permission, but simply because we are running late for what we believe we supposed to be doing, the omni-meeting.
The sad thing is that it doesn’t have to be this way; we don’t always have to step over problems and rush on. One of the reasons corporate hackathons and startup team retreats are so successful is that create an unhurried space in which people can fix things that bother them. These are often falsely labelled “passion projects”. Certainly some people use those events to pursue something about which they are highly passionate, but if you look closely, many of the projects are simply working on known problems that they’ve felt too busy to fix.
This is one of the reasons bug bashes exist: they are a form of explicitly setting aside time to fix known problems. But they are sadly limited to engineering. What if the marketers bug bashed, optimizing all those campaigns and fixing systems and addressing all those things that have been silently driving them crazy? I have trouble thinking of a department this wouldn’t benefit. Imagine line assembly workers taking time out just to work on the process of the line itself. The benefits vastly outweigh the costs.
For leaders, this is largely about accepting ambiguity in time usage and embracing autonomy. Google started there with the 20% time, but as Marissa Mayer so aptly put it, the dirty little secret of Google’s 20% time is that “it’s really 120% time.” Unhurried is really a cultural value, at the end of the day, and the best programs have to be buttressed with clear and unambiguous top-down messaging that prevent it from becoming simply an ask for employees to do more.
And for the individual, this is something around which we have control. We don’t have to wait around for some vague corporate overlord to permission us to take a step back and reevaluate how we think about time. Because it isn’t just being busy or not; it is about feeling busy or not.
When I was a kid, my dad taught me to recall often the first line of the Desiderata: “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.” Over the years, I’ve frequently lost sight of that mantra and it is one of the reasons I have taken the last several months off, after leaving Microsoft, to concentrate on family.
Even without working, I find myself filling every minute. And yet the unfilled minutes, the blank spaces on my calendar, are the true moments that I breakthrough. Because they do get filled. An empty space on my calendar is not an empty space in life; more often than not these days, those blank spaces are really time with my son. It is true, #YOLO, but that isn’t a command to fill every moment; indeed, it is the precise opposite, an invitation to step back. And we all need to work on remembering that.
Side note: There are so many people I love that I haven’t taken the time to just see and talk with, completely without agenda, because of the pressing demands of people with direct and articulated need. If you are one of those people, I apologize. Please send me a note and let’s have an unhurried lunch.
Also published on Medium.