PM Articles > Geof Lory > Festina Lente

Festina Lente

by Geof Lory

I have to admit, I have a fickle relationship with speed. At times I find it exciting and invigorating, other times it can feel dangerous and irresponsible. I have written previous articles covering both sides, from Speed Kills to Are You Ready for Speed, and even created a Speed Readiness Assessment. I think this juxtaposition is just part of the expression of some of the basic balancing principles of good project management. Let me explain with a story.

Several years ago I was on a project to combine 32 disparate systems into one. Corralling that many different sponsors and users is no easy task, even under the best of circumstances. But the challenge was made more difficult because several sponsors had a strong interest in seeing the project fail to protect their parochial interests and organizational autonomy. And if that was not enough, finance was also looking for a good reason to pull funding so they could allocate it to other projects they preferred. Overcoming this confluence of project hurdles required us to make demonstrable progress, and make it quickly. There would be little tolerance for anything less.

Fortunately, we had a Senior VP who recognized the situation and was also naturally inclined to create a sense of urgency in the team. Within only a few months we were implementing our first release, and we continued that aggressive pace for more than a year. As the team got larger the pace became more difficult to maintain, but that didn't deter the "pedal to the metal" expectations under which we were working.

Eventually, the combination of a larger user base, more system interfaces, and increasing project complexities called for a touch of deliberation. Quality was taking a hit and people issues were surfacing. Still, the pressure to keep the pace of delivery didn't subside. It was time for a frank conversation with our Senior VP. I scheduled the meeting and at the same time made an addition to my email signature line. It simply read, festina lente.

I could practically hear my SVP: "Slow is for losers. Sleep faster!"

Now, I'm known for spouting an occasional Zen koan in meetings, but the Latin introduced a new twist to my usual maxims. It piqued the interest of several team members who immediately looked up the translation, "Make haste, slowly." I could practically read the SVP's mind. "Slow is for losers. Sleep faster!" I was going to have to explain what this was all about.

In speaking, a pause leads the listener to believe something of importance is going to emerge. In festina lente, the pause allows room for something to emerge -- something greater than an immediate reaction. Allowing time for emergence is not the same as over-planning or looking for certainty. It just makes room for more and potentially better ideas. We can use that time to play on the edges of what is and explore what can be. Planning, and particularly excessive planning, attempts to control the emergence through the plan. Controlled emergence? That just doesn't make sense.

Festina lente isn't about slowing down per se. It is the pause -- that momentary hesitation -- that matters.

The universal application of this phrase became the kernel of a discussion that introduced a slight pause in our pace. Festina lente isn't about slowing down per se. It is the pause -- that momentary hesitation -- that matters. The constructive intent of festina lente is that activities should be performed with a proper balance of urgency and diligence. If tasks are overly rushed, mistakes are made and good long-term results are not achieved. It's important to acknowledge the comma in "make haste, slowly."

When we react too hastily, we tend to rely almost exclusively on our experience. Experience may be enough if we are solving familiar problems or dealing with familiar situations, but old responses may not be appropriate for new situations. Failure to honor the comma does not allow time for new ideas to emerge. Instead, we knee-jerk our way through, apply the same approaches we used last time, expect the same results, and instead miss the boat entirely. We need passion reigned by reason.

Experience may be enough if we're solving familiar problems, but old responses may not be appropriate for new situations.

Observe and assess the situation, reflect and make space for the emergence, and then take intentional action. These three steps help us manage the tension between the urge to take action and the need to slow down and listen to what can be. This is a key tenet of an Agile mindset.

Like our SVP, I am a naturally impatient person. I talk fast, drive fast, walk fast, even my golf swing is fast. So our conversation was one I have had with myself many times. I know that speed can enable rash judgment. I have also learned that when there are not enough voices included in the conversation, the outcome suffers. In collaborative teams a sense of too much urgency can create isolation, which results in a lack of buy-in. Involvement is what creates buy-in. None of us is as good as all of us.

As a Project Manager, I am typically privileged to a broader range of project information than the rest of the team, ideally positioning me to make the most informed decision quickly. Isn't that in my job description? With all my years of experience and the information and background I bring to a situation, especially a decision, I often blow right by the pause. I know therefore I act. (Comma intentionally missing.) Time for another conversation with myself.

This year, festina lente will go back on my signature tagline. Only this time, the intention is different. Back then, it was intended to stir thought in others. This time it is a reminder for me. Because as we all know, true sustainable change starts from within.

Happy New Year, and may you be successful with all your resolutions for 2015.


~ Festina lente ~

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