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People hurry in South Korea. They literally run. They zipped by me constantly. It’s a fast-paced, hustling, quick culture.
They run through the subway system on the way to work. Some of them are in high heels, but they aren’t going to let themselves be late.
They move quickly on the bus when we get to the stop. The buses barely stop and passengers practically jump on and off.
They dart through the restaurant when bringing your food. It arrives hot, without delay. I was kind of annoyed when we arrived in Scotland recently and realized meals weren’t going to run on that go-go-go South Korean pace.
Some people run while others amble
I don’t claim to be an expert on South Korea. But I spent four months there early in the pandemic, and it was fascinating to watch.
I’m pretty used to the western pace of life. We get things done, but we do it at our own speed. We amble. There’s a fair amount of contemplating, followed by deliberating, followed by waiting before we’re ready to act. Of course we have to stop by Starbucks first to get caffeinated, so we can contemplate and deliberate.
A good discussion precedes most action. There’s always someone to raise concerns about cost, and safety, and risk, and anything else that might slow us down. If we can have a meeting–well then, we have a meeting.
South Korea moves fast. They’ve transitioned from being one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the richest, in record time. They aren’t waiting or debating, or deliberating about much. They’re too busy taking action.
Tracking and tracing in real time
During our time in South Korea, there were a number of Covid outbreaks that the government handled quickly and efficiently.
One outbreak involved a super-spreader event in which a young man with the illness visited a number of gay night clubs. This guy must have been a social butterfly of epic proportions because he partied in five different clubs over the course of several hours, exposing hundreds of people to the virus.
When that guy tested positive, the government kicked into action with testing, tracking, and tracing. But it was a complicated situation, requiring quick decision-making and instant policy changes. I assumed that the government would fail to contain the outbreak, because that’s what I’m used to seeing: governments failing.
A bias for action gets problems solved
Nearly immediately, the South Korean government discovered that much of the tracking and tracing information collected by the nightclubs was falsified. Gay people in Korea are, apparently, hesitant to provide their data to the government and others for fear of discrimination.
The government immediately asked everyone attending the clubs to obtain a COVID test. They instantly changed government policy and anonymized testing, in order to address the concerns of the gay community.
More issues arose.
First came the question of how to get the word out about the testing. The government collected cell phone data from towers near the clubs. They blasted text messages out within hours to those who’d been in the affected area.
Next came the issue of payment for the tests. Tests were free for locals, but foreigners had to pay and some didn’t have the funds. The government, again within hours, made the tests free for foreigners. More text messages implored everyone to come get a free, anonymous test.
Finally, the government shut down the clubs, pending the development of new systems for reopening safely. That action was also instant, and the clubs stopped operating immediately.
All of these steps were announced with blasts to our cell phones via text message. The government moved as fast as those folks running through the subway, jumping off the bus, or serving sizzling hot food in restaurants.
Within days, the infections peaked, and then the number of cases dropped quickly. The outbreak had been controlled. Had the government not acted, the infections would have increased exponentially and spiraled out of control.
Set aside some time to contemplate the problem
Many of us, myself included, operate in a ‘set aside some time to contemplate the problem’ culture. Just identifying the problem becomes a slow and painful process. We like to ask lots of questions, like What’s the real problem here?
In South Korea, they’d have already started solving the problem. They move fast. In fact, being in South Korea leaves one with the impression that they’re capable of solving a problem before we’ve even identified it.
Some might criticize their ready-fire-aim approach; I get that. On paper, it sounds like it could be an error-prone rush toward ill-considered solutions. The results, however, prove otherwise.
It’s not an accident that South Korea went, in record time, from one of the poorest agricultural economies in the world, to the twelfth-largest economy in the world. Their economic growth is referred to as the “Miracle on the Han River”. Samsung, Hyundai, and LG are just a few of their large companies today.
Too many of us spend too much time studying the problem and procrastinating when it comes to implementing solutions. When the default approach is to simply add the problem to the task list for later consideration, then your life–and your business–are mired in the muck.
Taking action is the only way to get things done. Taking the wrong action may not solve the problem, but it narrows down the list of solutions. If the culture of your business is to act slowly, it’s time to introduce a dose of South Korea to the team. Consider playing a K-pop music video before your next team meeting.
Stop contemplating… Start acting… Jump off the bus faster
A bias for action starts with you–at the top. When you’re a quick decision-maker, taking fast action yourself, your influence drives your organization. Your people learn that solving problems quickly is the preferred course of action. They pick up the pace.
But you can’t make every decision. When you reserve the authority for yourself, you quickly become a bottleneck, even if you’re quick to decide the issues presented to you. If your people are going to resolve problems in real time, they won’t always be able to present you with a considered explanation of the issues. Quick solutions require delegating decision-making down to the person who is addressing the problem.
They need to have learned, by watching you, that moving fast is respected and supported. They also need to know that taking quick action won’t necessarily solve every problem instantly. But if they continue to take quick action, continue to rapidly work toward a solution, things will get done and resolution will be achieved. The solution might require repeated actions, but that’s just fine. The objective is to find a solution–fast.
You need to push decision-making down the chain. The President of South Korea and the Mayor of Seoul can’t be the decision-makers when it comes to resolving a particular outbreak in a particular nightclub. They’ve delegated those issues to others in the government. They’re willing to trust the people further down the chain of command, and take the risk that some quick decisions might be wrong. They know that action gets things done, and the value is found in solving the problem. Nobody cares how many times you failed, if the problem gets solved. Move fast toward solutions.
Run. There’s a time for walking, but running will get you there faster. Take action, make decisions, move faster–and you’ll get where you’re going in record time. You may not be located on the Han River, but you can still make a miracle happen.
Now, get moving.