The two speeds of digital working
Moving fast and slow
I recently interviewed Seb Chan for the Digital Works podcast. Seb is a very thoughtful person who has done lots of interesting things at the intersection between digital and culture.
One of the things we explored in our conversation was the idea of being comfortable with slow change.
Slow change in this context means work that does not readily fit into the ‘move fast and break things’ way of thinking. It is change that involves intangibles, and takes months or years for its impact to be felt or observable.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since we spoke, and I think when it comes to achieving change - especially but not exclusively when digital stuff is involved - there are two types of change you need to enact in parallel.
Fast change is often the stuff you can see and touch, hiring someone, delivering a new website, changes to signage, launching a new brand, implementing a new ticketing system.
It will often be the stuff that is easiest to make a case for, and is often the stuff that you directly spend money on.
You can usually see where it starts and ends, it has clear edges.
This stuff is important as it usually comprises the things that everyone uses. It is the stuff you can immediately see has happened and you can measure the change that has occurred within days/months rather than having to wait longer than that.
Fast change is easier (and probably has a more obvious price tag).
Slow change is the stuff you feel, such as culture, mindsets, behaviours, attitudes, skills.
It is harder to define, harder to put together a clear plan to make happen, and not something you can just spend money on to achieve.
It will not quickly be apparent whether change is happening over this axis and will take longer to achieve (months/years rather than days/weeks).
Slow change is what affects how deep and sustainable the impact of fast change work is, but slow change will often need fast change projects to catalyse it/give it a reason to happen.
Slow change usually needs an external impetus to start. Slow change is more difficult.
These two layers of change are interdependent and symbiotic, for both to be effective, the other must be in place.
People get obsessed with fast change projects, it feels rewarding and Important to spend (often lots of) money on a solution to a problem.
But the reason that these fast change projects seem to happen so regularly (and with such wildly varying success) is because they are rarely accompanied with the slow change thinking and work required for their impact to be felt, and to ‘stick’.
And slow change, whilst difficult, is often possible without any specific outside support, it just needs thought, time and attention.
In so many of the conversations I have, both on the podcast and in my day-to-day work, folks who lead or are involved in the most effective and impactful work cite the importance of communication, negotiation and above all empathy in the way they work.
The ability to understand someone else’s priorities, anxieties, pressures and ambitions, and to configure your work and the way you talk about it to speak directly to those points comes up time and again.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the most important bit of any digital work is the people, and that inherently involves ambiguity, messiness, and change that cannot and will not happen overnight.
Being comfortable with and thoughtful about operating at these two speeds, and with the very different concerns they involve - and giving them equal focus - feels an increasingly vital element to delivering successful but above all sustainable digital work.
And in the cultural sector, in an age of squeezed budgets and resources, this is essential.
I don’t think there’s anything especially radical here, but I rarely see any of the type of ‘fast change’ projects I’ve mentioned above accompanied by a relevant programme of ‘slow change’ work to aid adoption, adaption, and impact.
I know it’s not necessarily exciting or sexy to say ‘we really need to work on the culture/mindset/skills of our [whatever] teams to maximise the impact of a new brand/website/restructure/etc’ but as our sector has to do more and more with less and less we need to ensure that everything is aligned towards impact and success, and thinking across these two strands of work feels important.
I’m intrigued to hear what people think.
Have you managed to deliver a ‘fast change’ project alongside the type of ‘slow change’ work/focus/conversations I’ve mentioned here? Does it feel like an unrealistic luxury to work in this way?
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