Fast Vs Slow Thinkers in Project Teams

Office life

A project manager should front-load a project with Slow Thinkers in the planning phase, and gradually move the balance of resources towards Fast Thinkers in the implementation phase.

The theory of Fast and Slow thinking is explained in detail by the Nobel Economics winner Daniel Kahneman in his 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. This article suggests an application of the theories from the book. I do not intend to summarise or review Kahneman’s book here.

Very briefly, System A (Fast) thinking involves a lot of shortcuts to allow us to make lots of fast decisions in a short time frame. System A thinking is frequently sub-optimal, or downright wrong. Where the inputs are very complex System A thinking becomes a guessing game.  System B thinking (Slow) involves a full evaluation of all the input factors. It takes time and considerable mental effort, but usually arrives at a better answer than System A.

The premise of this article is that projects require a lot of System B thinking at the beginning to establish operating parameters. If the planning phase is set up properly it will create decision rules for the implementation phase. This will allow implementation staff to make many Fast (System A thinking) decisions, driving the project forward and keeping momentum going.

We all use both System A and System B thinking, depending on the situation. When you buy a chocolate bar you make a snap decision. The risk of a wrong decision is low. It costs 1 Euro. When you buy a home you revert to System B thinking. You look at the local schools, transport, parks, shopping, parking, neighbours etc, because the impact of a poor decision will be very expensive.

Let’s stick with the house purchase as an example. Imagine you have been appointed project manager. Your brief is to buy a house, decorate it, and then move your family into it. You have to set up a project team.  Do you need to include the removal company in the team for the selection of the house? 

The house you buy will impact upon the job of the removal company. They will want to know how many floors are in the house, how far they will drive to get there, height restrictions on parking access, if parking is on-street, if it is an apartment, does it have an elevator etc. But you do not buy a house to suit the removal company.

Think of the removal company as the System A thinkers in your team. They need clear guidelines and boundaries. Given these they can supply you with costs and timings to complete the work. If you ask them whether you should buy a detached house or an apartment you simply make their job more complicated, and the input they give you will not improve your planning decision.

At the planning phase of the project you need System B thinkers. More importantly you need resources who have a stake in the game. The success or failure of the project should directly impact their career. This will ensure they fully play the “risk averse” card and identify as many potential pitfalls as possible before implementation begins.

Here is where it gets interesting! The type of people who are strong System B thinkers, who are so valuable in the planning phase, become a liability in the implementation phase. When you are buying your house you want your spouse or partner to ask all the hard searching questions. When the removal company ask where to leave a vacuum cleaner, you do not spend a day evaluating the lowest risk location. They are on the clock, and you need to make a fast call instantly. The brain work has been done, the house is bought, the major parameters have been fixed in your project. Implementation is all about System A thinking.

The danger is that “Consideration” which is so valuable in the planning phase becomes “Dithering” in the implementation phase. On the flip side someone who is good at “Confident Fast Decision Making” in the implentation phase may be exposed in the planning phase as a weak System B thinker.

If you draw a line between Marketing and Sales you can see that marketing is weighted towards System B thinking and Sales is weighted towards System A. Marketing takes complex information inputs and analyses them to decide WHAT TO DO. Sales takes a marketing plan and decides HOW TO DO.

One interesting trend I have noticed in my career is how Marketing is a popular, and successful, career for many women. Sales (in my experience) has been weighted in favour of men. I know lots of women in sales and lots of men in marketing, so there are no rules or biases here.

There is much academic literature which suggests that women are more risk averse than men. Reasons may be historical, cultural, biased by social systems etc. What it suggests is that Women revert to System B thinking faster than men. If true, this makes them better project planners, while men will be better implementers.

OK, I am not being sexist (I promise). What I am saying is this. If you are a project planner you need to find a way to identify which of your resources are best at System A thinking and which are best at System B thinking. You should balance your resources over the project so that you have more System B thinkers in the early planning phases, and then gradually move towards System A thinkers in the implementation phases.

Sailing into history

Yacht America, by James Bard, 1951

Yacht America, by James Bard, 1851

On this day, in 1851, the oldest international sporting trophy, the Americas Cup, was awarded to the yacht America, of the New York Yacht Club, after a race round the Isle of Wight.
The New York Yacht Club successfully defended the Cup until 1983, when Australia II took the cup for the Royal Perth Yacht Club. I believe that this represents the longest winning streak in the history of sport!
America was a triumph of commercial design. In those days pilots would compete with each other for the contract to guide a ship into harbour. Pilot cutters had to be fast to win the race for the job. The yacht America was a showpiece for a new type of cutter design, and was essentially a marketing tool to promote American ship building in Britain and Europe.

The Ocean Yacht Race ; by Isaac McLellan

A noble sight is this, I ween,
Fair panorama of the sea,
The ocean white with crested foam
To windward and to lee;
Bright shines the day on Staten Isle,
On woods of emerald green,
On stately dome and villa roof,
With field and lawn between.
Long Island stretches east away,
Engirdled with the brine;
On sandy bar and weedy rock
The glorious sunbeams shine.

Full many a score of stately yachts
Wide o’er the sea are spread,
Careening like white-plumag’d birds,
On rushing pinions sped.
Vast steamers bound for foreign land,
Their smoky banners raise;
The flag of every nation
Its blazon’s field displays.
The sound of martial music
From many a deck arise,
Loud shouts of acclamation
Swell grandly to the skies;
From fortress wall and green parade
Ring out the cannonade.

Off Sandy Hook two stately yachts
The broad arena sweep,
While meteor flag and flag of stars
To each tall masthead leap;
Each emulous to win the prize
For speed in ocean race;
To claim the palm of victory
O’er ocean’s rolling space.

See how they matchless ride the seas,
Like rush of desert steed,
Graceful as swan on limpid lake,
Swift as the eagle’s speed.
A cloud of canvas each displays
From deck to topmast head,
Jib, mainsail, spinnaker,
In ample folds outspread.

Onward, right onward see them fly,
Cleaving the tumbling surge;
A score of miles away the goal
To which the champions urge.
The mark is reach’d, and homeward now
On free wind turns each dashing prow.
So ends the race, the first great race,
Where Puritan holds foremost place;
But nobly in the watery way
Genesta bore her flag that day!

Once more these yachts the challenge fling,
Again on rushing wings they swing;
From Scotland Lightship swift they bear,
Each yacht a pyramid of snow,
The white sails blossoming high in air,
Balloon jibs all aglow!
Yielding to pressure of the breeze,
Thro’ the salt ocean sleet they dash,
Plunging thro’ maelstrom of green waves,
Through whirling foam they flash,
‘Tis battle of the flight and chase,
Pursuer and pursued;
The centreboard, the cutter race,
Fought out o’er ocean flood.
Ah, Puritan hath won the prize!
And cheers exultant rend the skies

Summers End

As we wind into the latter half of August the talk turns to school schedules, uniforms, books, study plans and the hopes and dreams of the year to come. It always seems to me that the Celts got it right, starting the new year at the end of the last harvest in Halloween. There is a natural feel of completeness to a year at the end of the summer, that is absent at the winter solstice.

The Academic year just seems more RIGHT as a way of ticking off time. We will shortly close up our summer bolt hole and go back to the ranch. Back to lift and dry the onions, harvest the turgid tomatoes and pick the plumbs. Look for the blackberries to ripen, with the promise of crumbles to come.

Autumn beckons with the promise of misty mornings, log fires and the hope of an indian summer.

The End of Summer; by Rachel Hadas

Sweet smell of phlox drifting across the lawn—
an early warning of the end of summer.
August is fading fast, and by September
the little purple flowers will all be gone.

Season, project, and vacation done.
One more year in everybody’s life.
Add a notch to the old hunting knife
Time keeps testing with a horny thumb.

Over the summer months hung an unspoken
aura of urgency. In late July
galactic pulsings filled the midnight sky
like silent screaming, so that, strangely woken,

we looked at one another in the dark,
then at the milky magical debris
arcing across, dwarfing our meek mortality.
There were two ways to live: get on with work,

redeem the time, ignore the imminence
of cataclysm; or else take it slow,
be as tranquil as the neighbors’ cow
we love to tickle through the barbed wire fence
(she paces through her days in massive innocence,
or, seeing green pastures, we imagine so).

In fact, not being cows, we have no choice.
Summer or winter, country, city, we
are prisoners from the start and automatically,
hemmed in, harangued by the one clamorous voice.

Not light but language shocks us out of sleep
ideas of doom transformed to meteors
we translate back to portents of the wars
looming above the nervous watch we keep

Old Contemptibles


When they marched into war in 1914 the British regular army was unsure of its credentials on the great European stage.  It was over 60 years since the Crimean war, the last time Britain engaged with European foes.  In the interim years the German and French armies had modernised and traded blows with each other a number of times.

The Germans were respectful of the French army, but saw the British Expeditionary Force as irrelevant to the bigger picture.  On 23rd August 1914 the Germans met the British at Mons.  Though they outnumbered the British 3:1 the Germans were stopped in their tracks for 48 hours.

So rapid and concentrated was the fire from the British rifles that the Germans were sure they faced machine gun batteries.  They came away from the battle with a new found respect for the British army.

At British headquarters the brass concocted a supposed order from the Kaiser to his troops, telling them to “march over the contemptible little British army”.  Although it was pure morale boosting propaganda, the soldiers believed it and the story stuck.  The survivors of the British regular army were proud to bear the nickname “the old contemptibles”.

Not many of them survived the “race to the sea” and the regular British army ceased to exist as a force by the 1st battle of Ypres in November, 3 months after their first encounter with the Germans at Mons.

Mons became legendary for the British.  Practically, it demonstrated that the British regulars were more than a match for the Germans, and gave hope to the raw recruits drafted to replace the regulars.  Psychologically it established a legend for the British in France.  Soldiers spoke of seeing the “Angel of Mons” charging to battle with the British, supported by the spirits of longbowmen from Crecy and Agincourt.

100 years on, we remember the Great War, a war which lasted, to all intents, from 1914 to 1945.  We remember the fallen.  They shall not grow old.


For the Fallen; by Robert Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.