MIT Sloan Executive Education innovation@work Blog

Paper airplanes and black holes

Charles Compo

Guest post contributed by Charles Compo, Managing Director of Carriage Hill and an MIT Sloan Executive Certificate holder.

I’m thinking, there appears to be a certain elasticity when it comes to time. On a recent flight back from out of the country, I watched a Nova series episode on black holes. According to the narrator, if you were to observe a clock near a black hole from a great distance, it would appear to tick more slowly than another clock further away from the black hole. Due to this effect, known as gravitational time dilation, an object falling into a black hole appears to slow as it approaches the event horizon, taking an infinite time to reach it.

I grew up in a family of musicians and was taught that time is a key element of performance. Jazz musicians, and musicians in general, think about time in a different way than most people. Time is not about duration; it is a way of expressing a moment. When musicians say that a drummer has good time, it doesn’t mean he gets to the end of the song faster, it means that the music is in sync between the players and something special happens that makes the dancers move and emotions in the listeners stir. It all happens in between the measures.

Elite NFL running backs pause in the middle of a four or five second play and find an opening in the defense with more than a ton of well-oiled muscle moving at high speeds ready to flatten them. Running backs don’t usually get the most yardage by running straight toward the goal line as fast as they can, they slow down, pause and find an opening. It’s often noted by commentators that the game seems to “slow down for them.”

In business, we are all trying to get things done. We all want to provide excellent goods and services to our customers, but we are constantly faced with unexpected delays, production problems, accidents, sudden complexities, and unforeseen circumstances. There always seem to be little flaws in our processes. We dismiss these flaws as noise or the unavoidable cost of doing business. So the question is, how can we grow our businesses aggressively and profitably and do it in such a way that we maintain the highest level of efficiency and product quality?

While recently attending MIT Sloan Executive Education program, Creating High Velocity Organizations, the brilliant and humorous MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Steven Spear stood before us with his intimidating bowtie and Cheshire Cat smile, and challenged us to manufacture and deliver 18 defect-free paper airplanes in four different styles to our customer in a specific order, in five minutes. I won’t spoil the fun if you haven’t had the pleasure of working through the paper airplane challenge yet, but believe me when I tell you it was a very good example of time dilation. In Professor Spear’s book, The High-Velocity Edge, he advises to (1) design the best possible systems that we can think of based on everything we know, and to build in tests to recognize problems as they occur, (2) get everybody in our organizations to jump all over the problems as they crop up thereby building new knowledge, (3) share that new knowledge with everyone in the organization, and (4) repeat the first three steps.

At our best, we play in the spaces and go out of our way to find surprises. We stop, think and plan, then break down objectives into bite size tasks. We have the full team learning, sharing and buying into the process. We make a declaration, run the process and learn, course correct and run it again. Sometimes we just need to create a little space to do some quality thinking. As the great songwriter Hoagy Carmichael was purported to have said: “Sometimes slow motion gets you there the fastest.”

Charles Compo is Managing Director of Carriage Hill, a private investment bank. He has an Executive Certificate in Strategy and Innovation and is a published composer.


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