On Competitive Speed and Time

Over the last few years, the topic of speed as a competitive factor in business has gathered renewed interest.

Over the last few years, the topic of speed as a competitive factor in business has gathered renewed interest. As seen in much of the recent literature, the redirection toward this topic reflects current concerns about rapid changes in the business environment in relation to technological developments.

The crux of the matter is quite simple: mapping out a clear and strategic path forward seems increasingly difficult when territories are constantly changing at an accelerated pace. As a response, the idea of harnessing speed as an operationalized vector seems a reasonable solution. Seen in this light, speed is no longer just an aspect of the business process but an operational domain in and of itself. This approach, however, opens up an interesting set of problematics: as the structure of competition is enveloped within a common space of measures and coordinates, speed moves by transforming the spaces it occupies, thereby radically re-organizing the syntax of that space and with it, the capabilities of each competitor.

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A change in operational speed is a change in operational time. When speed produces change, much of that change occurs on dimensional rather than directional levels. For example, let’s imagine a competitive encounter between two opponents. Though both may be functioning at the same measurable time, constituting a somewhat cooperative playing field (temporally leveled, if not spatially), the opponents may be operating at different durational cycles. This is possible because operational time cycles entail unique internal characteristics and processes which, in turn, have their own distinct measures of “distance.” Operating with greater dexterity, heightened efficiency in operational structure, or unique capabilities brought about by innovative technologies or systems, one opponent may be performing at a higher velocity and rate of acceleration though at a more compressed envelope of time. The rate of actions per unit of time establishing the common measure between competitors is secondary to the mismatched internal processes unique to each opponent. Ultimately, the victor is the one who can bypass the common or relational speed/time envelope and dictate the tempo of competition by operating at a faster rate but at a slower duration.

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Contrary to common notions, perhaps it’s helpful to view speed and time as distinct composites. Each can be broken up into differences in degree and differences in kind (a concept I am borrowing from Henri Bergson). The former implies a sphere that is quantitative, directional and homogenous (or equalizing)—the measurable aspect of speed and time–while the latter implies a sphere that is qualitative, dimensional and heterogeneous. As competition necessarily entails the production of imbalances, the latter part of the composite presents a more conducive field for divergent action. In this field, the measurable aspects of the game—its board, pieces, rules, etc.—are rendered secondary to the interplay of forces whose movements are not necessarily subject to common measure.

Let’s suppose that a company develops a proprietary technology allowing it to bypass several steps in its production cycle. This creates a few competitive time-based challenges. At the onset, the company’s action effectively imposes additional time for its competitors to come up with an effective response. Following this salvo, competitors who are unable to respond with a similarly efficient system or technology will be forced to execute its processes at a faster and more labored rate. For the company introducing its proprietary technology, time compression can occur on multiple levels: the reduction of steps brought about by the new technology naturally brings about a time advantage; supposing the company takes a strategic approach and designs its human capital infrastructure to operate with greater dexterity, the cooperative operational cycles run at a slower durational rate though at a faster relative speed and shorter time cycle than its competitors; and if the company implements a systemic means to proactively observe, analyze and act upon industry changes, as well as implement a means to assess those observations and responses mid-performance, then it establishes an agile and accelerated means of operating within the time-cycle of its competitors (military theorist John Boyd’s second and expansive version of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act Loop introduces this concept in a masterful way).

In conclusion, we have two conceptual forms of speed and time, and two distinct manifestations of competitive space. Although this article barely scratches the surface on any of these topics, I hope it has opened up a divergent space in which to think about potential approaches to utilizing these concepts in a strategic or operational manner. As concepts like speed and time are constantly being re-interpreted in light of new circumstances, it would be interesting to see what would happen if we were to look beyond the obvious or pragmatic and more toward the experimental. After all, interesting solutions can only be formulated when you ask interesting questions.

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