Book review: Wait – The Art and Science of Delay by Frank Partnoy

waitThis review first ran in the Dec. 31 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Wait: The Art and Science of Delay

By Frank Partnoy

Public Affairs Books

Don’t just do something. Stand there.

It’s a common adage among top doctors and one we should all resolve to adopt in 2013.

We’re going to face some hard choices and tough calls in the new year. Exhibit A is a potential new Hamilton casino with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation needing a decision by the end of February.

We’d do well to hold off making big decisions in our community and in our professional and personal lives for as long as we possibly can.

If you have a year to decide, wait until the 364th day. If you have an hour, weigh in at the 59th minute.

“In most situations, we should take more time than we do,” says Frank Partnoy, a corporate lawyer, former investment banker and author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. “The longer we can wait, the better. And once we have a sense of how long a decision should take, we generally should delay the moment of decision until the last possible instant.”

That delay can help us figure out if our initial gut reaction, intuition and instinctive emotion are on, or off, the mark. We buy ourselves time for analysis and logical deliberation, observing and orienting ourselves.

This is especially important if we’re sailing into uncharted waters. While experts with a wealth of experience can usually go with snap decisions, novices who haven’t been there and done that 100 times before should delay as much as possible.

“When we are not experts and we don’t have time to compare and choose rationally among options, the best choice is often to do nothing. Because novices are prone to make the wrong move, the right move is often no move at all.

“If you can’t take a timeout or ask for help, and you haven’t already thought through the precise scenario you face, you are most likely headed for a bad decision. Novices who wrongly believe they are experts are doomed. They don’t realize their predicament until it is too late.”

To make the right moves more often and avoid rookie mistakes, get comfortable with pausing for as long as necessary before acting even when faced with the most pressing of decisions. “For good decision-makers, time is more flexible than a metronome or atomic clock.”

Partnoy says good decision-makers are able to act quickly, but are also willing to go slowly. They’re comfortable using both intuition and analysis. “That doesn’t mean their decisions are slow; they can be faster than just about anyone when it matters. The best professionals understand how long they have available to make a decision and, then, given that time frame, they wait as long as they possibly can.”

Mastering the art and science of delay will also help us when we screw up and find ourselves eating crow in 2013.

Timing is everything when it comes to an apology. You don’t want to say sorry too soon or too late. Be like Goldilocks and apologize not when the reaction to your screw up is too hot or too cold, but when it’s just right.

“A snap apology can be less effective or even disingenuous, it might even suggest panic or fear,” says Partnoy. “If we take some time before apologizing — if we can enter the longer-term world of hours, or even days — we show that we have considered the feelings of the wronged person, something we could not have done had we apologized right away. Time gives victims a chance to understand.”

Partnoy ends his book with one word of wisdom for making smarter decisions: wait.

“Questions about delay are existential: the amount of time we take to reflect on decisions will define who we are. Life might be a race against time, but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why. A wise decision requires reflection, and reflection requires a pause.”

Here’s to wise decisions for all of us in 2013.


Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s