Grizzly bears are often imagined as fearsome beasts, better known for their brawn than their brain. A brief study of their hibernating habits, however, would suggest a smarter, more strategic creature. Grizzlies go underground into cozy dens and hibernate for up to seven months in a year. During hibernation, they become hyper-efficient; their respiration decreases from six to ten breaths every minute to just one breath every forty-five seconds. They do not eat, drink, urinate, or defecate during hibernation, living off a layer of fat built up during the summer and autumn months.
During this dormant state, they lose fat and increase lean body mass. Their only purpose at this stage is survival; they go underground to overcome adversities over ground. Grizzlies work smart, not hard, realising that fighting the cold is a fight they cannot win. Humble and self-aware, they realise it may be better to just ride it out. Going underground allows them to adapt to changing conditions, making them stronger and more resilient for when they finally make their comeback.
Like the grizzly bear, the entrepreneur and executive go into his or her own state of sloth and stupor from time to time. In business, we can often get caught up in what other people are doing – and this influences the tempo we set for ourselves and for our colleagues. This outward-looking lens can be inspiring, but it can also make us unnecessarily anxious. In our always-switched-on digital world, in which ‘speed’ has become an unquestionable virtue, it is understandable that people would dread the thought of a period of inertia.
Taking some inspiration from our grizzly cousins, I’d like to question some of this ‘speed-over-substance’ thinking. Will we be remembered for the quality of our work or the quantity? Can the speed of our moves really be more important than the strategic thought behind them?
A great painter with one masterwork that he or she perfected over a lifetime trumps one with a larger catalogue of average art-pieces. Da Vinci famously never finished a painting. He was a man who valued the finer details of his works over speed, and in his search for truth in areas as diverse as painting, science, sculpture, architecture, and philosophy, he continued to ‘create’ well into his old age.
He lived a life of unfinished works in which he tampered with his art and engineering designs with great frustration. He fiddled with the painting, Mona Lisa, for four years, and abandoned the work while it was still unfinished. He was said not to be happy when he handed over the incomplete work to Francesco del Giaconda’s third wife, Lisa Gherardini. It now hangs proudly in the Louvre and is heralded as one of the finest pieces of art in human history.
Business leaders addicted to the ‘speed train’ could learn a thing or two from artists of the 16th century, when patience and one’s ‘staying power’ were valued over velocity and ephemeral success. When long-lasting legacy was far more valued than short, intense sprints of success. As a thought experiment, imagine everything you say and do in this life leaves behind a papyrus scroll to be studied by future humans five centuries from today. Would the scroll of our life’s work be measured by how prolific we were? Or by the quality of what we produced, the values we upheld, and the depth of the mark we made in the wider society we inhabited?
Slow Down to Speed Up
As paradoxical as it sounds, we need to slow down to speed up. Sometimes we need to ‘get off the hamster wheel’ and think strategically about the direction of our business. This type of lateral thinking requires us to relook at our understanding of speed itself. ‘Operational speed’ is about increasing the pace at which we produce things, and is not the same as ‘strategic speed’, which is more about reducing the time it takes to deliver value. Short-term gains in ‘operational speed’ may give us a feeling of momentary success, but in the long run, without a fully defined strategy, our business may ultimately suffer.
Think of your business plan as a tortoise, built for travelling long distances, not a hare, more suited for short sprints of acceleration. As Jocelyn Davis and Tom Atkinson summarize quite eloquently in their Harvard Business Review article ‘Need Speed? Slow Down’, ‘Ultimately, strategic speed is a function of leadership. Teams that become comfortable taking time to get things right, rather than just plow ahead, are more successful in meeting their business objectives. That kind of assurance must come from the top.’
The good news for the tortoises amongst us is that the statistics back up this thinking. In Davis and Atkinson’s study of 343 businesses, companies that marched forward with a ‘go go go’ mantra ended up with lower sales and operating profits than those that paused at key moments to ensure they were on the right track. According to the Harvard research, those that ‘slowed down to speed up… improved their top and bottom lines, averaging 40% higher sales and 52% higher operating profits over a three-year period.’
Grizzly bears are joined in their love for hibernation by tortoises, squirrels, skunks, bats, hedgehogs, and other slothful creatures. These languorous animals have accepted that a period of inactivity, while a bit lackadaisical in the short term, pays dividends in the long term. Although we often view animals as instinctive and primitive, this is far from true; in many ways, they are far more intelligent than us. Animals take ‘the long view’ and show a greater sense of purpose then most urban civilians. No hibernating animal can be seen out searching for food in the depths of winter - to do so would be futile.
In business, the markets and the economy ebb and flow. Often the entrepreneur is encouraged to ‘dig in’ and ‘dig deep’ - but let's be pragmatic - often there are elements at work that are out of our control. Sometimes, conservation, or inactivity are the best approach. Luck, timing and circumstance all have a part to play. And being extremely patient whilst remaining ambitious takes courage, as achievements can be interspersed with periods of latency. Just as a hibernating animal’s time is not wasted underground, for entrepreneurs and executives, down-time is time very well spent regrouping and re-energizing to spearhead new strategies, amend old ones, or engineer a hitherto unforeseen competitive advantage.
Channel your inner grizzly
In modern life, productivity is king; society and the working environment put pressure on us to churn out a constant stream of product, with little or no regard for quality and inspiration. But do the ‘balance scales’ with which we measure success require some tinkering? Is the always-be-switched-on regimen, which seems to have taken over modern day business life, the right way to go?
While grizzly bears adapt to survive during hibernation, entrepreneurs can find a ‘strategic slow-down’ equally as cathartic. Just as animals ensure longevity while avoiding harsh winter climates, entrepreneurs can stay relevant during tumultuous times if they slow down to ponder, reset their vision, and conceptualize new ideas while avoiding the constant rays of the spotlight. Entrepreneurs then emerge from the darkness with a revitalized passion for their craft and a profound sense of their yet unfinished legacy. But the time of dormancy is to be used strategically, so when the summer does come back around, the victory seems all the sweeter and that long cold winter can soon be forgotten.