Slow Down: Fast Companies Are Over

Last Updated Sep 22, 2010 10:23 AM EDT

Speed is so yesterday. There was a time -- about 10 years ago -- when speed was everything. Peter Drucker said we should build companies like tents, going up fast and being pulled down fast. It was in that spirit that Fast Company magazine got its name. Launched in 1995, it celebrated spreed in its promotional poster quoting Hunter S. Thompson: "Faster, faster, faster til the love of speed overcomes the fear of death." I remember the poster because it used to hang in my office.

But recently I've been struck by companies that move very slowly -- because they want to and because they believe that being slow and deliberative is key to their success.

One of these is Eileen Fisher, the garment company. When I first sought to write about this business, it took a year to set up an interview. At the time, it drove me crazy, but now that I know the company well, I understand. In an industry characterized by overnight changes in fashion, Eileen Fisher aims to produce classic clothing. Of course it's environmentally smarter to buy clothes that won't be thrown away after a season, and individual items can be mixed and matched with items bought years earlier. They don't date, and their customers have been known to hang on to them for years. Designing each season's collection is a slow, deep process that draws in 80 to 100 people from all over the company. Necessarily these "deep dives" demand a lot of time, but they also deliver: sales have tripled over the last ten years, with margins and sell-through rates well above industry standards. The company would argue that they aren't this successful despite being so slow but because of it.

In his wonderful book, Small Giants, Bo Burlingham observed the same qualities in Reell Precision Manufacturing. There the management triad mandated that all of their decisions had, ultimately, to be unanimous. This often meant that decisions were slow and lugubrious. But it also meant that the three founders thought deeply about issues of quality, process and ethics. Instead of going fast, they had the time to dig deep. And it made them very successful -- even when the economy dived.

That slow is so effective should not surprise us. The issues faced by most businesses today are deep and complex, not especially susceptible to quick fixes. We might like to think we can solve everything with a quick email from a Crackberry, but in fact we would do better to stop multi-tasking, slow down and think. It would certainly make a change; there are a lot of recovering speed addicts out there.

The slow food movement has done pretty well. Perhaps it is time for a slow business movement, too. With a new magazine, called Slow Company.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.