From a young age, we are told to be patient, that patience is a virtue. Akin to spiritual practice, psychologists teach patience as a coping skill to keep at bay the frustrations of daily life. 

While this is all well and good, like many well-intended things, patience also has the potential to become weaponized — particularly against progress. Patience is the word innovators often hear when encountering resistance to change. It is evoked as an explanation of long-standing traditions, complicated corporate politics, or years of inaction. Patience is even used to excuse inefficiencies, unnecessary costs, injustices and a safety exposure. 

Startups also abuse the concept of patience, sometimes with existential consequences for the business. Time is seldom a new company's friend. Every day further from a purchase order is a day further from an invoice. Every day further from an invoice is a day further from getting paid. Startups survive on capital, and when it is not returned to the business promptly, bad things happen. It's like that salesperson who justifies the delay of the signing of a contract by just a single day, only to discover the following day that his champion is no longer with the company. 

I believe that the most important job of an entrepreneur is to innovate. To do that takes a quantified definition of the problem and a clear path towards the solution. The less visible the path, the higher the resistance, and consequently, the more often you will hear the word patience evoked. Don't vilify your customer for misusing patience. Instead, take it upon yourself to understand why that antibody is attacking the innovation. A lack of clear pathway is most likely the reason. 

This is where genuine patience steps in.

Genuine patience requires that you invest the effort to see the problems from the viewpoint of your customer. It means you define and quantify the problem that needs solving together, outside the bubble of your R&D lab. If your organization gets good at this process, you will likely begin to hear the words "be patient" be replaced by the phrase "let's do this.” Many of the best companies and innovations were born out of models like these.

We need to ensure that patience never becomes an excuse for needlessly delaying something that can be done now. Startups are notoriously tough on work-life balance, which is why procrastination is often mistaken for patience.  This is a constant challenge in software, where tight deadlines are often the excuse for mounting technical debt.  Genuine patience requires that leaders allow their teams to make the investment necessary to address these issues — and if extra time is needed, it can be rationally justified. 

In summary, as business leaders, let's identify where patience has become the wolf in sheep's clothing and make it the prominent theme for innovation again. 

Charlie Lougheed is the CEO of Axuall, a digital network for verifying identity, credentials and authenticity in real-time. He co-founded several successful startups that later exited to public firms including Explorys, now IBM Watson Health, and Everstream.  Charlie is also the co-founder and board member of The Unify Project, a nonprofit that is mapping the “socioeconomic genome” including the factors that drive economic dislocation. You can reach him at [email protected].

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