For example, less instantaneous equals more thoughtful. Thoughtfulness and clarity cannot be compromised. Just because someone sends us an instant request does not mean we need to fire back an instant reply. There are occasions when instant response is critical, and it is our job as leaders to be able to gauge that. But, more often than not, a thoughtful delay will result in a better-considered and better-appreciated answer. And, it can save us from a sharp retort we might later regret.
Another “less is more” principle that also serves us well as leaders in a liquid world: Less rigid is more capable. Whether we’re talking about skyscrapers built to withstand earthquakes; automatic transmissions built to compensate for imprecise drivers; or networks built to deploy munitions and food to a dynamic, rapidly moving tactical force, systems that allow for fluidity and flexibility, rather than systems that get hung up as a result of narrow tolerances and rigid conformity, will always perform best.
Being less rigid also requires incorporating others’ points of view, not just sticking with our original ideas. There are numerous examples in the private and public sectors that show the value of considering varied sources of input with openness and flexibility and avoiding the rigidity of our own silos and rejection of concepts “not invented here.”
For example, I’m impressed with the lessons that the United States military is adopting from Toyota, Federal Express, Wal-Mart, and other commercial companies to enhance process discipline and innovation. Likewise, there are more and more instances, in areas such as transportation, triage, and information assurance, in which industry is paying close attention to lessons from the high-stakes realm and standards of the military. The recent emphasis in companies on knowing the precise location and status of products in progress from initial order to customer delivery is inspired by concepts pioneered by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Which brings us to the last element of solid connections in a liquid world: personal linkages. Less virtual is always more personal and more powerful. We need men and women more than machines. People are always more fluid, more creative, and better problem solvers than the finest systems. And even systems are most efficient when they’re designed for more fluid operation and behave more like living and learning organisms.
We need to use technology for what it does best (storing, retrieving, computing, and mining data) — and use people for what we do best (imagining, designing, dreaming, and relating). At the end of the day, one of us, not an information system, must make all the big decisions. We’re the ones who need to be “minds on.” The more we understand this from the beginning and design systems to complement people rather than to replace them, the more solid our connections and missions will be.
In today’s liquid world, less instantaneous, less rigid, and less virtual equals more solid.
This article is adapted from a March 2007 speech at the National Defense Industrial Association Annual Logistics Conference in Miami, Fla.
Ralph Shrader (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chairman and CEO of Booz Allen Hamilton.