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Thinking fast—and faster

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Professional basketball has a 24-second shot clock. In the NFL, the median time from when the ball is snapped until the quarterback picks a receiver and throws for a pass is roughly 2.7 seconds. In baseball, a batter has about 350 milliseconds to decide whether to swing at a pitch, and that includes the 100 milliseconds it takes for the visual signal of the ball being released to travel from the eye to the prefrontal cortex, the decision center of the human brain. 

You might say: “That’s professional sports. It certainly doesn’t apply to us mere mortals in the workforce, right?” Think again—but don’t take too long. Welcome to the wild, wonderful world of high-velocity decision making. 

Increasing time pressure 

In fact, it’s hard to find an industry that isn’t under increasing time pressure. Consider national defense, for example. Strategy, doctrine, and war-gaming used to be relatively slow-moving. But today’s world is full of surprises. Whether it be a new miniature explosive device, a novel form of cyberattack, or the sudden appearance of a sophisticated hypersonic missile, the dynamics, and odds, can change virtually overnight. 

In medicine, first responders or anyone working in an emergency room will tell you that for many situations, every second counts. For example, the very first steps they take in a medical emergency are based on a simple formula, ABC: airway, breathing, and circulation. That’s because after 4 minutes without oxygen, permanent brain damage begins to take place. Death from a severe anaphylactic reaction to a drug they might administer can occur in as little as 15 minutes. Every split-second decision could mean the difference between life and death. 

In the world of finance, things aren’t quite as life-threatening, but the cost of errors can still be extremely high. Go to any day-trading website and pull up the chart of one of the many major cryptocurrencies and you’ll see swings of plus or minus 10% or more in as little as a few seconds. 

The message is clear. In this brave, new, tightly connected, high-speed world, the next disruption could be right around the corner. If you haven’t totally re-examined your decision processes from top to bottom, now is the time. For starters, let’s take a look at how one top-performing organization meets this challenge head-on. 

What would Jeff Bezos do? 

If you’re going to achieve consistent, effective high-speed decision making, it can’t involve a protracted review by upper management. It must happen at the point at which the problem or opportunity is occurring, preferably by the person closest to that point. “Fast and faster” means “close and closer.” 

For this to happen on a sustained basis, key governance principles must be clearly articulated and understood by everyone up, down, and across the organization. Just as properties in object-oriented software are inherited, key guiding principles need to be encoded and passed on so they can be applied instantly, on-the-spot, as the situation warrants. 

This has been the culture at Amazon since Day One. In fact, one of its main principles even now is: “Operate as if it’s Day One.” As a result, when facing a decision, employees often ask: “What would Jeff Bezos do?” 

With this mindset deeply engrained in its culture, Amazon has traded the frustration that comes with a slow-moving, bureaucratic decision process with one that places a high degree of trust, responsibility, and accountability squarely on the shoulders of each employee. Of course, not everyone is comfortable with that sort of arrangement. But in today’s rapidly changing world, it’s becoming an absolute necessity. 

And speaking of rapid change, as machines take over more repetitive tasks, people being displaced have every chance to step up. This means that if you find yourself making the same decision multiple times, it’s time to automate that decision and move on. The last thing you want is to be identified as a bottleneck— or, worse yet, a redundancy. 

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