Does faster mean better?

The dog days of summer always spring the question: could we be doing things a bit better? Working with the federal government, when one thinks about better, one often thinks about speed, the pace at which things get done. Projects this time of year never seem to get finished. Innovations are stalled. Everyone wears a wary look. 

In libraries, though, you can't only blame the stereotype on plodding federales. Another librarian recently told me that she spends a good part of her day primarily fighting political games and worrying about how to get her projects through the layers of bureaucracy.

Anytime I start to feel impatient, I think about Howell Raines, the erstwhile editor of  the New York Times, who came on board Sept. 11, 2001. He proceeded to instill a culture change that he called "rais[ing] the competitive metabolism" of the newspaper. Raines had some successful days, but he spent most of the time fighting an implacable workforce and then fending off claims his style of journalism lead to sloppy reporting, plagiarism, all in the name of getting the story first. 

The wounds inflicted by the serial plagiarist Jason Blair -- and many other smaller, but still important examples of short-cuts in reporting  -- lead to Raines' dismissal from the newspaper less than two years later. 

Raines, of course, is a living example that speed kills. But his idea of quickening the pulse still remains important, especially when an organization remains mired in the same old projects and the same old methods.

How to build innovation?  
Researchers have spent a lot of time trying to quantify innovation and, of all things, cities. They ask a simple sounding question: Does the pace,  energy and cramped quarters of cities spur new ideas? Some people look to biology for an answer.  When living things grow, their metabolic rate slows. Not so for cities, Geoffrey West argues, who calls it "Urban metabolism." 

"When you double the size of the city, you get more than double the amount of both good and bad socioeconomic quantities—patents, aids cases, wages, crime, and so on," he told Discover magazine. 

Cities are fantastic innovation centers because of the greater number of ideas floating around -- which make it easier to steal and borrow. Few inventions occur in vacuums, Steven Johnson has pointed out, or from the lone inventor working late at night in her workshop. (Many of the modern world's great scientific breakthroughs were actually discovered simultaneously by more than two -- sometimes three or four -- teams.) Ideas grow from intermingling with other ideas, which interact to form new ways of doing things, which can be tweaked, made better, etc. 

In human terms, it may not be the pace of cities that spur innovation. Richard Florida argues that cities are more innovative because they have a higher number of  the right people trying to solve those problems. He's referring to people with the social skills to create, push and work with new ideas. 

Lethargy sets in 
But bureaucracies are not run like cities. For one, they're closed systems working for a common goal. (And, as West points out: “Cities tolerate crazy people. Companies don’t.”) Two things are necessary to address the lethargy of stalled innovation: speed and the drive to solve ideas first. Three Air Force researchers go straight to the heart of Howell Raines' paradox: If you get there first, you better be right. 

A quickening of an organization's pace, the writers argue, will force them to quickly promote ideas with potential and freeze out ideas with no apparent hope.   "These organizations then move on quickly to new opportunities," they write. "Opportunity-driven organizations cannot afford to waste time, and they are willing to accept some losses in order to move quickly."

Of course, the writers understand not every problem can be solved this way. (And this is probably where Howells went wrong.) Giant projects, the ones often undertaken by the military or other government R & D teams, are never solved as easy as stumbling upon a 3M sticky pad in a researcher's spare time. They take time, patience and a lot of money. 

This is the tenor of a recent conversation I heard from a researcher who said larger ideas need a slower pace to percolate answers. "We have answered all the easy questions," he told us. "The hard questions take time. We need more time to even ask them." 

Cover photo: Speed of Light by jpctalbot