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October 22, 2023

The Curious Story Behind The Word “Slowification” from Wiring The Winning Organization

By Gene Kim

My new book, Wiring the Winning Organization, co-authored with Dr. Steve Spear, will be out in about a month!  Without a doubt, this was the most intellectually challenging thing I’ve ever worked on, but it has also been the most rewarding.

Among my personal goals was to understand why organizations work in the way they do (in the ideal and non-ideal), as well as understand what is in common with DevOps, Agile, the Toyota Production System, Lean, resilience engineering, safety culture, psychological safety, and so much more.

In this book, we observe that within all high performers, there must be three mechanisms:

  • Slowify (i.e., “slow down to speed up”) to make it easier and more forgiving to solve problems.
  • Simplify (i.e., partition problems in time and space) to split apart large problems to make them easier to solve, most likely in parallel.
  • Amplify (among other things, weak signals of failure) to make it obvious that problems need to be solved and that they were successfully resolved.

The Main Idea behind Slowifying

Whenever you see someone doing great work in dangerous, high-stakes production environments, almost certainly they made a massive investment in honing those skills during planning and practice. This is logically necessary because it’s difficult (if not impossible) to do “on-the-job learning” in these environments: the consequences of failure are too high, and there’s no ability to undo or redo, which means it’s difficult to experiment and learn.

In the technology space, look at the people who run the most reliable, secure, and high outage cost environments, such as Amazon, Google, Netflix, and Vanguard. They run some of the most complex and mission-critical sites with apparent ease.

Of course, these people are talented, but they weren’t born with those skills. They were afforded the time and training to become excellent at their craft, to develop the routines, habits, and playbooks so that when things catch on fire in production, they have the necessary skills and routines to do their work.

In other words, they slowified. Just as great pilots, astronauts, race car drivers, and athletes do.

(And, if leaders don’t create the time for slowification, they doom their organizations to a hopeless situation. At best, they will be stuck with whatever existing routines and processes they already have. Worse, they doom themselves to ever-increasing amounts of technical debt. This is true not just in software but in every other work domain, as well.)

Is Slowify A Real Word?

Most people will quickly note that “slowify” is not a real word.

Trust me when I say that the last thing Steve and I wanted to do was to make up a word, especially since it was likely to be in the book title or subtitle. But to our surprise, we couldn’t find a word in English that describes this concept of slowing down to speed up to improve. What’s even more curious is that there are many adages for this concept, such as “stop sawing to sharpen the saw,” “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” “practice makes perfect,” and so forth.

To avoid making up a new word, during the review process, several people suggested using a term like “deceleration.” However, we didn’t like this idea because it was missing the notion that you’re slowing down to eventually go faster.

So what does the modern researcher and writer do when confronted with a problem like this? Ask ChatGPT, of course! (This is not a joke—I’ve found GPT-4 and Claude 2 to be very, very good at language-related tasks.)

So, in June, I asked ChatGPT:

“There is an adage that slowing down to improve is worth the investment. Many popular cliches exist for this: “stop sawing to sharpen the saw, so you can saw faster,” “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” “improvement of daily work can be more important than daily work itself.”

Consider that “accelerate” or “decelerate” doesn’t capture these meanings.  

What is a verb that does capture this meaning?”

Alternative Words We Rejected

Here are twenty words it suggested that get at the idea of investing time and effort in the present to improve future outcomes, all of which we rejected:

  • “Refine”: Taking the time to analyze, improve, and perfect a skill or process to make the necessary adjustments for a more efficient or effective output in the future.
  • “Cultivate”: the act of nurturing or developing something over time, often in the context of skills, qualities, or relationships. 
  • “Hone”: implies the focused effort to improve or perfect an existing skill or practice, much like honing a blade makes it more effective.
  • “Polish”: To refine or perfect something over time.
  • “Nurture”: To care for and encourage the growth or development of.
  • “Temper”: To bring to a desired hardness or strength by heating and cooling; metaphorically, it can mean to make something more balanced, moderate, or controlled.
  • “Season”: Over time, to become or make something more mature, experienced, or proficient.
  • “Foster”: To encourage the development or growth of ideas or skills.
  • “Enhance”: To intensify, increase, or further improve the quality, value, or extent of.
  • “Elevate”: To raise or lift something up to a higher position, but it can also mean to improve or make something more refined.
  • “Mature”: To become fully developed or ripe; used metaphorically, it can mean to become more effective or refined over time.
  • “Sculpt”: The process of creating a refined, three-dimensional object, which metaphorically can be used to indicate the process of careful refinement or improvement.
  • “Mold”: To shape or form something in a gradual way, often used metaphorically for personal or skill development.
  • “Optimize”: Make the best or most effective use of a situation or resource, often implying an iterative improvement process.
  • “Evolve”: To develop gradually, typically from a simple to a more complex form.
  • “Ripen”: Mostly used in the context of fruits, but when used metaphorically, it denotes maturing or becoming ready over time.
  • “Develop”: To grow or cause to grow and become more mature, advanced, or elaborate.
  • “Progress”: To move forward or develop over a period of time.
  • “Transcend”: To go beyond the range or limits of something, typically implying growth or improvement over time.
  • “Mature”: To become fully developed or ripe, it inherently suggests a process happening over time.
  • “Season”: The act of becoming more mature, experienced, or proficient over time.
  • “Transform”: To make a marked change in the form, nature, or appearance of, implying a process over time.
  • “Transition”: To undergo or cause to undergo a process or period of change, often for the better.
  • “Culminate”: To reach a climax or point of highest development; inherently implies a process over time.
  • “Anticipate”: This term signifies being aware and preparing for potential future problems or changes, which seems to align with your intent of addressing problems during planning and preparation rather than in production.
  • “Preempt”: This suggests addressing problems before they even occur, which matches the idea of solving issues during planning and performance.
  • “Strategize”: This signifies the process of creating a strategy or plan, which includes identifying potential problems and working out how to solve them beforehand.
  • “Forecast”: Similar to anticipate, but with a more explicit focus on predicting future events or issues.
  • “Prepare”: This could signify the action of getting ready in advance, which includes the process of identifying potential problems and finding their solutions before they occur.
  • “Plan”: This term indicates the process of making detailed arrangements or formulating a course of action, which should naturally include the identification and solution of potential problems.
  • “Optimize”: This term refers to making the best or most effective use of a situation or resource. It inherently includes elements of planning, preparation, improvement, and pacing activities for maximum efficiency.
  • “Cultivate”: This suggests a slower, more deliberate process of development or improvement. It could include elements of anticipation (identifying what needs to be developed), planning, preparation, and slowing down to focus on development.

(Answers slightly modified from ChatGPT responses. You can find the actual session log here:

Sticking with Slowify

None of these words made us go “Aha!” And so, we stuck with slowify.

In fact, I’m hoping that by giving a name to something that great leaders already know and intuit, it will make it easier to summon. As in, “These bad things keep happening. I think we need to slowify.” Which would ideally elicit the response, “Holy cow, absolutely. Let’s stand down for two days and figure out what we need to be doing differently and how we’ll measure the success of this countermeasure.”

Side note: as you’d expect, the Germans do have a word for this concept. According to ChatGPT, a German compound word for this concept would be “vorausplanungsverbesserung”.

  • “Voraus” means “ahead” or “in advance.”
  • “Planung” means “planning.”
  • “Verbesserung” means “improvement.”

This would be a perfect word for the book. Alas, it wouldn’t fit on the cover.

(My friend, Dr. Christof Leng, SRE Engagements Engineering Lead at Google, said in Slack: “The actual German word for slowification is Verlangsamung.” Isn’t it interesting that Germans have a word for this concept?)

PS: When you preorder Wiring the Winning Organization through Porchlight Book Company, you’ll be signed up to receive exclusive bonus content and get 30% off your order. Preorder now at the link below! Offer ends November 6.


Theoretical underpinning for slowification

The theoretical underpinning for slowification is the work of Drs. Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky. Their idea won Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences in 2002.  (Why not Twersky?  The Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously.)

Their key insight and work over decades showed how there are two modes of human thinking and cognition: fast and slow.  Fast thinking takes advantage of biases, habits, and routines.  But to create new routines, we must use our slow thinking processes, where we can be deliberative, creative, and contemplative.

Thus Kahmeman’s book title: “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Gene Kim is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award-winning CTO. He has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999 and was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He is the author of six books, The Unicorn Project (2019), and co-author of the Shingo Publication Award winning Accelerate (2018), The DevOps Handbook (2016), and The Phoenix Project (2013). Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.

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  • Anonymous Oct 28, 2023 8:20 am

    If I’d shown our exec team this blog at the last place I worked, I know their reaction would have been “but we don’t have time to slow down”. They are in a tough spot right now so that might be true, but they’re in a tough spot because that’s the answer they were giving two years ago when they weren’t :(

  • Anonymous Oct 27, 2023 4:35 pm

    Every musician knows how important is to practice slowly with a metronome to master a new piece.

  • Anonymous Oct 23, 2023 1:50 pm

    The notion of slowing down to get the job done right in a professional setting has been used by the US military for years. There's a saying, "slow Is smooth and smooth is fast". Fingers crossed "slowification" catches on in the business world.

  • Anonymous Oct 23, 2023 12:21 pm

    I love an origin story! It’s interesting to think about the missing word, and how hard it is for us to ‘slowify’ - how closely does the lack of a word reflect our lack of attention, or contribute to it?

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