The Age of Speed by Vince Poscente

I was all set to be annoyed by this short book, but ended up being charmed by its cheery good-nature and earnest focus on its theme. The Age of Speed by Vince Poscente is a self-conscious little business book that is a little too aware of itself, and by no means an intellectual heavy-hitter.

Yet, perhaps because of that, it gets the job done. It drives home the message that irrespective of what you are doing (at least in the world of private enterprise), you should probably be learning how to do it faster. The message that the pace of change is important is not new — it goes back at least to Alvin Toffler and Future Shock (1970). What Poscente does is make a neat little case for adopting a certain philosophical attitude towards speed (namely “addiction” — pun not intended).

The setup is not inspiring. Poscente was an Olympic-level speed-skier who transitioned seamlessly onto the lecture circuit. Thankfully though, this is not yet another intellectually lazy jock who thinks a loose metaphor based on a sport works as a theory. In fact there is almost nothing in the book about skiing, which is a relief. The book starts out rather weakly, with some toy examples and flawed analysis, but if you are willing to overlook that, you get to some fun stuff that will make you smile and reflect on the right questions.

The Logic of Speed

The book starts with a rather specious argument that almost made me put it away. It is the idea that per-capita productivity has increased faster than the human lifespan, and therefore, we have more wealth to spend in the same amount of time, which drives us to live for speed. Poscente makes up this toy example:

Imagine two children at a fair. Rides, candy, etc., cost $5 each. Each child has an hour. One child has $5, so he can leisurely decide what to spend it on. The other child has $20. IF she can move faster, she can pack in four times the fun.

It takes an Olympic speed skier to make the next bizarre leap of logic that almost scuttles the book. Poscente claims that even though more choice is stressful, most of us DO want to pack in more and live life at the breakneck pace of four fair rides/treats an hour. His support: a statistic that says that when offered a choice between more choices and more time, more than 90% of adults choose to keep more choices. He leaps from that one flimsy, unexamined statistic (and, apparently, his own speed-junkie personality) to the conclusion that “people have a need for speed” and that they want to live faster-paced lives. By this reasoning, economic acceleration is something we’ve chosen by consensus.

Let’s accept that for certain personality types, speed for its own sake is actually a motivator, and that Poscente’s is one of them. He redeems himself later, but in the meantime, we need a better argument for why the pace of the economy is constantly accelerating.

My own answer: economic acceleration is driven by relative deprivation, the idea sociologists and economists use to explain why, among other things, people in slums are willing to go hungry to save up for a television. It is the idea that people don’t attempt to maximize utility, they attempt to keep up with the Joneses. So in any economy where an innovation improves lives or allows things to accelerate, somebody who is relatively deprived will use the innovation to speed up rather than bank a quality-of-life improvement at the current pace of life. Eventually, this forces everybody to speed up. An example is email. Email is more convenient than snail mail, but there is nothing inherent in the technology that says we have to send more of it, more frequently, and respond faster when we receive it, compared to snail mail. But if some top dog company somewhere was dumb enough in 1990 to simply luxuriate in the hassle-lowering ability of email without changing its ways, it has probably been trampled to the ground by companies that realized email was an overtaking opportunity. The opportunity presented by email was cashed out entirely in speed, with almost nothing cashed out in convenience.

So, whatever your logic for explaining acceleration, let’s buy into it as an axiom, and see where Poscente takes the idea.

The Pizza Triangle

You’ve probably been in a pizza place with a sign proclaiming “You can have any two of quality, low cost, and speed.” Call that the QCT (Quality-Cost-Time) triangle, you can only be at one vertex at a time. Poscente use this construct to claim that sometimes you can have it all. Orbitz and other air ticket vendors managed to lower time (increase speed) without sacrificing quality or cost (in fact lowering cost if you including transaction costs). Again the analysis of this is rather weak. The obvious ideas of a moving production frontier/Pareto boundary do not appear. Instead the book boldly proclaims roughly, that in the age of speed, the triangle is shattered forever.

I think the book is right in making the QCT triangle the center of attention. Combine a moving production frontier with relative deprivation, and you get a reasonably sound argument as to why many types of innovations will speed things up (interesting hypothesis: all innovations, not just faster-communication innovations, speed things up).

Metaphor Soup

After this the book meanders a bit into the vague idea that to deal with speed, you have to accept it and move from a work/life balance metaphor to a work/life blending metaphor. The connection to the deconstruction of speed is not clear, and other people have examined that question better, so let’s move on to the cutest part of the book: a set of metaphors that get at different aspects of why speed is important and why you need to learn to love living at high speed.

First, the idea that a minimum speed is necessary is served up with a bicycle metaphor. It is easier to balance if you are going faster than a minimum. This conveys the interesting idea that slower is often not safer. Sometimes, in business, if you are not going to move at a certain speed, you might as well quit the game.

Next we get a cute little personality taxonomy (this is where I was utterly disarmed and decided that despite weak analysis, the book was worth the read just for the smiles this bit gets). Poscente posits four personality types in organizations. Classify yourself:

  • Zeppelins: resist speed and try to slow things down when things start speeding up to the point where they lose control.
  • Balloons: don’t resist speed, but exit the game and find a niche for themselves where they can live a slow-paced life. Balloons are the uniquely skilled people who are not needed in commodity quantities in the economy.
  • Bottle rockets: are speed-at-all-costs individuals with zero agility who are both dangerous and uncontrolled/uncontrollable, and go out with a bang and collapse.
  • Jets: are fast and agile enough to make speed worth it.

Obviously I am a jet and most of you are zeppelins. Okay, I think I am actually a balloon at heart.

There a couple of other cute metaphors. Aikido features in an obscure lesson I didn’t get. Bats and sonar are roped in to deliver a lesson about reactive agility. Aerodynamic drag is mapped to the idea of alignment. That’s such a neat mapping, I am jealous I didn’t think of it before. Alignment is essentially about individuals facing the same direction in the right formation to minimize drag. so the flock can fly more efficiently than individuals could. I studied this damn problem for my PhD, so I am particularly ashamed its use as a metaphor for alignment didn’t occur to me.

Incidentally, while on alignment, I heard of another metaphor from a co-worker — in a hierarchical organization, you can think of alignment as zipping up a jacket top to bottom (or bottom to top, zipping can happen both ways).

Coda: Clockspeed

I am waiting for my copy of Clockspeed : Winning Industry Control in the Age of Temporary Advantage, and I expect that will cover an obvious related idea: that speed is not just time-to-destination, it is also a basic frequency/heartbeat of the way you behave (especially when you are talking of things that, in principle, could go on for eternity). Many people exploit the ease of conflating time-to-destination and clockspeed to turn “faster, faster” debates into irrelevant debates about long-term vs. short-term. The point is that even for long-term, 10-30 year stuff, you should be operating on a faster clockspeed if you can. You’ll get further within the same planning horizon.

But while I am waiting, here is a thought to mull: sometimes you go faster not by cutting delays out of your system or optimizing process, but by building in a clock that simply ticks faster. If there is anything at all to Agile development as an idea, I’d attribute it to the basic higher clockspeed of feedback, rather than any of the theology.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter