First Isn’t Always Best: When Patience Pays Off

Why the knee-jerk reaction and need for instant gratification needs some balance. Five cases where a little patience goes a long way.

First Isn’t Always Best: When Patience Pays Off
[Image: Flickr user Chris Preen]

In a world of speed, what is the value of patience?


Being first clearly has its advantages: Email and instant messaging support rapid communication with people around the globe. Companies that are able to dominate a market early are often able to dominate that market for years to come. Stock traders even benefit from exploiting a few milliseconds of difference in the time needed to execute a trade.

The speed of technology rubs off on those of us who use technology. Because emails arrive rapidly, there is a tendency to answer them as soon they arrive. The easy availability of information lends itself to snap judgments. Books like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink promote the benefits of reacting to information rather than thinking carefully about it.

The modern world has influenced a psychological characteristic called need for closure. Essentially, need for closure is the extent to which you want to be finished with tasks. There is a difference between people in their usual level of need for closure. Some people like to make decisions quickly and move on, while others prefer to mull over decisions and to gather more information. On top of this characteristic of people, the culture of the modern workplace creates a situational pressure that increases need for closure.

Is this trend a good thing?

Although there are some cases in which speed is of the essence, here are five cases where a little patience goes a long way.

Understanding “Why.” Innovation is a critical component of business success. Innovation is driven by a broad understanding of the way the world works–that is, the ability to answer the question “Why?” successfully. This causal knowledge is central for solving problems in new ways.


Unfortunately, all of us have significant gaps in our causal knowledge. Many of these gaps reflect that we rush through learning about the world. We want the 50,000-foot view of an issue rather than holding ourselves responsible for the details. Truly creative individuals learn the details by explaining things to themselves. This explanation process takes time.

Creating Consensus. Organizations may function well in a specific case when a leader makes a decision and pushes it through the company by sheer force of will. In the long-run, though, it is important for there to be broad-based buy-in to new initiatives. And that requires conversation.

There are two values to conversation. First, it gives many people a chance to have input on new initiatives. That input often improves the initial idea by bringing more of an organization’s expertise to bear on the issue.

Second, the act of having a conversation makes everyone think about a situation in the same way. When you have a discussion with someone else, you have to understand what they are saying, and so you have to think about the world the way they do. As a result, discussion helps to synchronize ideas across people.

That takes time.


Building Better Employees. There is often a tradeoff between getting a particular project done quickly and helping the people working on the project to develop more expertise. At any given moment, it is usually easier to tell people what to do than to give them the autonomy to figure it out for themselves. But, if you only tell people what to do, they do not develop their own capacity to work independently.

Every once in a while, of course, emergencies require everyone to just do what they are told. In general, though, it is worth allowing projects to develop more slowly, so that everyone involved in the project develops new skills. Not only do these developing skills help the organization to work more effectively in the long-run, they create a more engaged workforce. People like to work for companies that care about their development.

Testing Ideas and Products. In the modern technology sector, consumers have come to expect new versions of products every year. And many products can have their software updated remotely even after they have shipped. As a result, there is a temptation to release a product quickly and let the users find the bugs.

This strategy can backfire, however, when products are released that do not work as expected. People’s confidence in Apple devices was shaken when their map software was released too quickly and turned out to be a dud. Despite Apple’s desire to compete with Google Maps, it would have been better-served by delaying the release of the app rather than rushing it out the door.


Giving Your Ideas Time to Hit. Finally, think about how strongly we all seem to be influenced by the immediate reactions to a new product or service. In some industries like movies and books, the first week matters a lot. A movie that opens with a weak showing may never find an audience.

But most products are not like movies. Their initial sales are a good indication of the initial buzz surrounding them, but not necessarily a good indication of their long-term viability. If your product or service truly meets a need, then do not give up on it just because the initial reception was cooler than you hoped for.

After all, many of the products that are indispensable in the modern world (including printed books, automobiles, personal computers, and cell phones) were not big hits in their first week of release.

Indeed, to return to the example I started with, early market leaders often dominate their market for decades. But the first company to market is rarely the early market leader.