Mastering time elasticity

In the much commented Art of War, Sun Tzu said: “The general who is skilled in defense hides under the ninth earth; he who is skilled in attack flashes forth from the ninth height of heaven.” Biding his time in some circumstances, acting in the shortest time with all his might in other circumstances.

As I walked along the cliff this morning, between sea and land, the smell of fennel suddenly hit my nostrils. Literally two seconds later, it was gone. Only then did I realise how fast I was walking, deluding myself that I was observing the landscape waking up in the early morning. Sure enough, I could see, hear, smell, but that was not observing. I stopped, walked a few steps back, stopped again and truly took the time to observe, motionless:  the richness of sensations increased dramatically: the smells and sounds suddenly seem to swell, I then saw what I could smell and hear, the fennel, the dampness of the earth in the morning dew, the sounds of the distant harbour. A rabbit even dared show up, if only for a brief instant. If observing is indeed the mother of discovery skills, then let’s acknowledge that it requires that we hide under the nineth earth, that we take our time, that we value slowness.

I resumed my walk and went all the way to the harbour. My favourite café went out of business last month and was instantly taken over by new management. In a part of town where food shops had completely disappeared, giving way to restaurants and tourist shops, the brilliant idea of the previous owner was to create a boutique-size bakery-café where a few locals could sit for breakfast in the early morning, and more numerous tourists could come later in the morning and buy their bread and croissants to take away. It was a good idea, but sadly the 7-day-a-week operation was physically too much for the owner to run all by herself. The one difference that the new management has introduced is to hire a few staff and increase output. While it is early days to claim that the new strategy will be successful, I can’t help thinking of Sun Tzu’s flashing from the nineth height of heaven. If execution is indeed, besides creativity, the other key success factor of innovation, then it requires that we value speed and strength, that we fall on the opportunity from the nineth height of heaven.

Most innovation endeavours fail because individuals or organisations don’t give sufficient time to the art of observation and settle to quickly on an a half-baked idea, then don’t give enough speed and strength to an execution phase that drags on forever.

She, who masters the elasticity of time, who slows down to observe, then accelerates to execute, will eventually surge ahead of the innovation race.

  1. September 1, 2013 at 09:25

    I found a nice English word recently, to express Sun Tzu’s sense of being calm, patient, yet ready to act: “Poise”. It sits right between “Western” extremes of being energized vs relaxed and shows you are at your best if you are both.

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