Pace & Layers

An introduction


Slowly but steadily, like an old man finishing a bowl of soup at a deli, the various topics that we have discussed over the last few months are starting to converge. With every newsletter, we not only expand our collective understanding of strategy and complexity, but we also inch ever closer to the full introduction of the ABCDE framework.

Today, as alluded to last week, we are going to take a big step towards that end by introducing the concept of pace layering

And while I have been known to occasionally discuss the abstract, this is a topic you want to stick around for. As much as business discourse is overflowing with hyperbole, it would not be remiss to argue that the topic du jour is one of the least known yet most important keys to unlocking a holistic understanding of why companies and markets function the way that they do. For any strategist looking to be worth their proverbial salt, it is thus a jolly good thing to grasp.

So, let us get started.

The origins of pace layering can, as is so often the case, be tracked back to a number of people reaching similar conclusions more or less independently of one another. However, the term was first coined by Stewart Brand in The Clock of Long Now: Time and Responsibility (1999). Building (no pun intended) on British architect Frank Duffy’s notion of “shearing layers” – the idea that “a building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components” – Brand noted that complex adaptive systems such as ecosystems (or organizations and markets) are made up out of a number of layers with different change rates and scales of size. The layers, so to say, lower down are able to respond to stress quicker, allowing slower parts higher up to maintain system continuity:

“Take a coniferous forest. The hierarchy in scale of pine needle, tree crown, patch, stand, whole forest, and biome is also a time hierarchy. The needle changes within a year, the crown over several years, the patch over many decades, the stand over a couple of centuries, the forest over a thousand years, and the biome over ten thousand years. The range of what the needle may do is constrained by the crown, which is constrained by the patch and stand, which are controlled by the forest, which is controlled by the biome. Nevertheless, innovation percolates throughout the system via evolutionary competition among lineages of individual trees dealing with the stresses of crowding, parasites, predation, and weather.”

This, one might note (and Brand, to his credit, did), is similar to mathematician and physicist Freeman Dyson’s observation about society in From Eros to Gaia (1992): 

“The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales. But the unit of survival is different at each of the six time scales. On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual. On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family. On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation. On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture. On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species. On a time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet. Every human being is the product of adaptation to the demands of all six time scales. That is why conflicting loyalties are deep in our nature. In order to survive, we have needed to be loyal to ourselves, to our families, to our tribes, to our cultures, to our species, to our planet. If our psychological impulses are complicated, it is because they were shaped by complicated and conflicting demands.”

Either way, the premise is evident. There are various metaphorical layers, each different from the next in size and pace, in the world. The closer one is to the proverbial ground, the faster things will inherently move in both absolute and relative terms.

While Brand, like Dyson nearest above, ultimately applied his thinking to societies (also complex adaptive systems), the parallels to organizations and markets are obvious. Anyone who has worked more than a day in an organization knows the frustration of getting those above to move, a challenge that tends to grow in difficulty as the company grows in size. It can be (indeed, often is) made worse by bureaucracy and over-constraining the system, of course. But an important part is the fact that scales change from one layer of the business to the next. The bigger the organization, and the higher up it you are, the less nimble you will inherently be due to the pace of your strategic level - as previously illustrated by the Forss and Castlin Strategic Hierarchy detailed in Strategy in Polemy - and the inbuilt lag that comes with, for example, significant financial investments. As I have said many a time before, arguing that a large brand should “act like a startup” is no more thought-through than painting dinghy on the side of an aircraft carrier and expecting it to become able move like one.

Now, I should stress that unlike many (if not most) in my line of work, I am by no means averse to agile methods; my critical views of strategic planning as often argued for in traditional doctrine are well known. The point is that getting an entire organization to pivot to agile would not only be strategically ignorant but also, more likely than not, practically impossible. The layer pace at which things move where agile is most valuable is simply not constant throughout a mature business.

Of course, what one might call the opposite also holds true. Attempting to plan for every single scenario based on what the top management can see from afar leads to a brittle organization unable to adapt to the inevitable surprises that complexity throws its way. Yet again, we clearly see the value that lies in moving from (traditional) strategic alignment to (CCS) strategic coherence.

It is worth noting that the friction of sorts that both Brand and Dyson reference is not a negative. Rather, it is what ultimately keeps the system in balance:

“Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.”

Innovation challenges orthodoxy. Gathered wisdom repels destabilizing change but also takes useful novelty onboard, leading to the very praxis from which this newsletter takes its name. Theory is slow, practice is fast.

Similarly, fashion changes over night, commerce over decades. Decisions are born of moments, old habits die hard.

The list, as they say, goes on.

The implications of pace layers are profound. Understanding them dramatically improves the ability to balance proactivity with reactivity and the long with the short. Next week, I will therefore dig deeper into the various kinds that might exist in organizations and markets, and the potentially immense value that can be created in strategy, innovation and NPD by acknowledging them.

Until then, have a lovely weekend.

Onwards and upwards,