The upside of inconvenience

As transport strikes over pension reform in France bring disruption to trains, planes, and the Paris Métro, I’m reminded of a piece of research conducted by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge a few years back.

Drawing on anonymised data from London’s Oyster travel card, researchers explored the impact of transport strikes on individual commuters’ Tube journeys.

Researchers discovered that a significant fraction of regular commuters who changed their route because of the strike, stuck to the new route afterwards.

Though the proportion was small (around one in 20), a cost-benefit analysis of the time saved by those who changed their daily commute revealed that the strike actually brought economic benefit: the amount of time saved in the long run outweighed the inconvenience of time lost during the strike.

“The London Tube map itself may have been a reason why many commuters did not find their optimal journey before the strike,” notes a writeup of the research from the University of Oxford. Because the actual distances between stops are distorted by the map, travellers sometimes make inefficient choices; the strike, by forcing them to choose differently, revealed more efficient ways for them to make their daily commute.

Something similar can happen with strategic conversations. It can feel like a fuss, an imposition, or a distraction – when there is plenty of work to be getting on with in the here and now. We talk of “analysis paralysis” and our bias is towards doing something, rather than reflecting on our identity, our journey, or what might await us if we ever get to the far horizon.

But sometimes the very friction generated by these discussions is the source of new insights. Sometimes the journey we have to travel during such a conversation reveals that our current map was not best suited to achieving our goals. Changing the texture of our interactions in a workshop or discussion can give our minds fresh purchase on the fundamental questions of what we do and with whom, how we do it, and why.

When I spoke with the Norwegian innovation practitioner Martin Kristoffer Bråthen about online services during the pandemic, I was reminded of a story told by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński.

At one point on a road trip recounted in his book The Shadow of the Sun, Kapuściński and his driver find themselves trapped in an enormous traffic jam. The narrow, two-lane road is absolutely blocked, with no room for manoeuvre. An hour passes with no movement; some drivers abandon their vehicles. Kapuściński decides to go ahead on foot, to see the cause of the jam.

He finds this enormous hole in the road which vehicles have to be pulled across one at a time by rope. Everything has stopped to deal with this hole, and a whole community has built up around it. Local sellers are wandering the traffic jam, selling food and drink and cigarettes. Local houses have set up as hotels. Kids are using the hole as a playground and teenagers are helping to unload trucks so they’re light enough to be pulled across the gap. The local mechanic is going out to work on the cars of people trapped in the traffic jam.

The obstacle and inconvenience has created a new context around the road, with new relationships, new perspectives, new forms of value being co-created.

Yes, travellers are being delayed en route to their intended destination, but that is not the whole story of what is happening on this road at this moment in time. And if you were to think about the value that is being created by virtue of the road passing through this place, you would have to acknowledge that the hole in the road is creating an offering; in fact, a whole miniature ecosystem of value creation has been informally convened around it.

As we prepare to hold strategic conversations, as we deal with logistics and resources and venues, with people’s calendars and commitments, and the question: “Is this meeting going to be worth my time?” – it is good to remember the value of slowing things down and creating a little friction, and recognising the opportunity as well as the obstacles.

This might mean looking at things a little sidelong, as the Oxford and Cambridge researchers did when studying the travel strike; it might involve what John Kay calls “obliquity“: an ubiquitous and inevitable quality of making decisions in this turbulent world which means that “goals are often best achieved without intending them”.

It might mean working with imagined future scenarios in order to feel, and learn from, some of the challenge and discomfort from a particular setting or circumstance before it comes to pass (if ever). After all, what is a pensions strike if not an argument over the future, with workers withdrawing their labour to highlight the value they currently produce as they strive to change the conditions which their future selves will inhabit?

Whatever inconveniences you face today – and however much you doubt the value of that strategic conversation which lies ahead – it’s worth reflecting on how the very act of being slowed up, diverted, obstructed, or made to stumble can reveal new insights, opportunities, and benefits.

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