The Index Card Summary of “Wait: the Art and Science of Delay”

There is a famous military mantra that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, thoughtfully unpacks the benefits of taking one’s time and the contexts in which it is most important.

The Index Card Summary

Partnoy’s key takeaways boil down to three points:

  1. We should wait as long as possible to act, to ensure we have the maximum possible information.

  2. To be able to wait as long as possible, you need to be able to execute quickly.

  3. Doing things quickly comes with a cost to quality, which you can mitigate by becoming and expert.

Partnoy provides the reasoning, methods, and frameworks for taking on the challenging task of slowing down to achieve better results.

1. Why wait?

Because it is optimal. Partnoy posits that humans are hardwired to react quickly, as part of our inbuilt fight or flight instincts. Modern society taps into this wiring, tempting us to react instantly to its many demands. Yet we are often better off resisting both our biology and our technology. Waiting as long as possible ensures that you have the maximum possible information available to inform your next decision.

2. Making time to wait means executing quickly

In the ideal world, you would spend much less time executing and re-executing. You would optimize outcomes by minimizing execution time. OODA is an effective framework for developing a strategy without reacting too hastily.

The Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) framework requires the decision-maker to observe the changing environment and process the disorder occurring before deciding how to act. One can act fast without necessarily acting first. Act too quickly, and you may provoke a problem that would have otherwise gone away. Further, if you spend too much time acting (e.g. building a presentation), you have less time to observe (e.g. calibrate the actual project needs and goals).

3. To keep quality high during fast execution, become an expert

Novices and experts are two extremes on the experience spectrum. Whereas experts can act quickly based on the muscle memory of prior experience, novices may be better off not acting at all. For example, time pressure does not impact grandmaster chess players in the way it impacts novice chess players. Under time constraints, grandmasters make few mistakes whereas novices make many.

However, there are times when even experts should wait. Importantly, novel circumstance can still arise in one’s sphere of expertise. Medical professionals face this challenge often.

The considered take

Partnoy is one of the few voices in the modern world telling us to wait. We’re in an era of high-speed internet, one-click orders, two-day shipping, high-frequency trading….the list goes on. Partnoy counters our culture by making the case that waiting is optimal.

I appreciate that Partnoy makes the important distinction that artful delay and procrastination are not the same thing. This means that you need to define what “waiting as long as possible” means in your own context. In many businesses, on time is late and early is ontime. So, for example, waiting until the final hour to submit an application online, and then hitting a computer glitch, could leave you out of luck.

Partnoy also underscores that rushing when you are not an expert will not produce good results — making it all the more important to accurately assess where you are at in a skill set and allocate execution time accordingly. So how does one become an expert? A few ideas:

  1. Spend a lot of time thinking through how to do something in a deliberate manner, so that when the time arrives, you can execute quickly.

  2. Use checklists, which can force you to pause, be more systematic, and reduce errors. 

  3. Pursue deliberate practice so that you are trained in the skill you care about.

As Partnoy summed it up, the essence of modern intelligence may be knowing when to think and act quickly and when to think and act slowly.

5 things my dog taught me about management 

My new puppy has brought home a few important things to me in the last month, and not just the balls I ask him to fetch. Learning to train him has illustrated some of the most foundational principals of effective management. Below are the top five training points for building up your working relationships with those you manage, whether human or canine.

1. Build effective communication 

Before you can expect a dog to behave well, you need to be able to identify the cues they are giving you as to their needs. Are you annoyed that they are barking? What might they be trying to communicate to you? Perhaps they are hungry or haven’t gotten enough exercise that day. Noticing what your dog needs and providing that clears away concerns that may prevent them from being receptive to your guidance. When you have met your dog’s needs, you can also communicate your needs by praising the right behaviors (like chewing chew toys) and disincentivizing the wrong behaviors (like chewing shoes).

If you’re experiencing friction with an employee, have you taken cues from them as to their work style? Have you established communication norms? Have you provided clear feedback about what is working for you and what is not? (Pro tip: try creating a Management Readme on Readme.bio for each of your teammates, to more quickly orient yourself to everyone’s work style preferences.)

2. Break it down

Further to the communication point, it often is not enough to just say “be better” at XYZ, as such asks are not specific, and do not delineate a path forward. My dog initially struggled with “leave it”. I started with a simple piece of paper towel in my hand (which he normally loves to chew). He successfully left it. But I made the mistake of jumping right to putting it on the floor and walking away. He chewed it immediately. It was too big a leap for him. I’d skipped across the incremental steps that would have built up his focus. Similarly, explaining a piece of a process to colleagues and then jumping to the end, without breaking out the steps in between, makes it likely that you will lose people in the process. For managees, throwing them in the deep end with minimal prep is much more overwhelming than incrementally increasing responsibility.

I invested time in learning about dog training so that I could figure out how to lead him to the behaviors I wanted to see. Similarly, managers much invest the time to specify what precisely they want to see in terms of actions and outcomes, and work with their team to identify how to get there in the needed time frame.

3. Be consistent

Being consistent and predictable to those you manage helps them to figure out how to work best with you. My dog now start making little noises at 7am every day, as he knows that’s when we take him out to do his morning business, get fed, and play. He doesn’t make noises at night, as he knows we intend to sleep all the way through it. Similarly, managees can meld to your schedule and style if you are consistent. If you always block off 8-9am to review final work, they will plan to provide you content for review at that time. If you praise people for thoughtful project planning or being vocal during meetings, you can expect to see more of that.

4. Have patience 

Dogs take months and even years to be fully trained even in a single behavior. Expect them to make mistakes, and be forgiving yet persistent. Even smart dogs take a lot of positive reinforcement to solidify a habit. Humans need the same! It is perfectly normal to need to repeat yourself over and over, in different settings, so be accepting of this reality.

5. Invest

Dogs grow into behaviors, not out of them. If you continue to invest in building the right behaviors in the first year, you will reap the benefits for a lifetime. Your puppy will grow into an impressive dog who is a loyal companion. It goes without saying that people are also worth the investment! Your managees will prove resilient, and can grow leaps and bounds with the right support.