It's About Time

James Ware's picture

I have been thinking a lot about Time recently—mostly because I have so little of it under my own control. Don’t get me wrong; it’s nice to be busy. However, when something you value becomes scarce, it also becomes incredibly precious.

So here are a few somewhat-connected (at least in my mind) perspectives on Time, and how it affects our work and our organizations. I’ve chosen to focus in particular on how well-managed organizations (and effective individuals) allocate their work activities using Time as a major sorting mechanism.

One of the most classic ways of thinking about organizations and hierarchy is to separate their activities into three broad categories:
1. Doing (the day-to-day, short-term activity focused on producing products or services that create value for customers). Time frame: days, or at most weeks.
2. Managing/Coordinating – the task of overseeing the Doers, and of short-term planning. Time frame: weeks, or perhaps months and quarters.
3. Leading/Strategizing – the longer-term, direction-setting role of “senior management.” Time frame: sometimes the next quarter, but more importantly the next several years, or even decades for larger organizations.

Those three levels of focus led to the traditional image of the organization as a pyramid, since historically there were always many people involved in the Doing, fewer doing the Managing, and even fewer providing long-term direction-setting.

Obviously, most large organizations have far more than three levels of hierarchy today; some of the most bureaucratic ones (both public and private sector) have as many as twelve to fourteen layers of responsibility and decision-making scope (that's one reason it takes them forever to resolve issues and change direction!).

That model worked reasonably well for centuries; it reflected the realities of the Roman Army, the Catholic Church, and industrial corporations as they grew up in the mid-1800’s. The model grew out of a stable world, where the task of leading was essentially looking in a constant and very predictable direction, out towards the horizon. The task of Managing was then largely one of translating long-term direction into short-term assignments, and the task of Doing was one of following directions from above.

Now, of course, the world has become far more dynamic and unpredictable; and technology has introduced massive automation into the Doing and Managing levels of responsibility. The classic pyramid has broken down. Many of the Doers today are not on assembly lines; they are knowledge workers who are solving problems, creating new products and processes, and thinking for themselves.

And because information technology makes it so easy for the senior executives among us to track daily production, product shipments, and revenues, it can actually seduce them to become too focused on today, and to forget that their job is to look beyond the horizon—to explore the future, and to launch long-term projects that will change what the Doers are doing five years from now. Let the Doers and the Managers deal with today and even tomorrow.

Clearly, the most common reaction to this new state of perpetual and unpredictable change has been to dissolve the hierarchy, to remove levels in the bureaucracy, and to enlarge decision-making authority (and responsibility) up and down the organization.

In one sense this is all to the good; today in many ways each of us operates at all three of these levels in our own individual work. We define our own Strategies; we Manage our own activities (we create To-Do lists, we set priorities, we coordinate our work with our peers); and we “Do” everything ourselves as well (often including specialized tasks that others could do for us far more quickly and inexpensively than we can do ourselves).

While flat organizations sound wonderful in theory, I am convinced that our confusion between short-, medium-, and long-term responsibilities is creating most of this chaotic “busy-ness” we all complain about. We don’t know how to separate our time commitments among Strategy and Planning, Managing and Coordinating, and just plain Doing.

I certainly know that lately I have personally been spending too much time doing, and not enough planning and priority-setting.

If I am going to be my own CEO and my own Manager, then I have to get much clearer about my purpose, my plans, my priorities, and my commitments (as much to myself as to my clients). And I have to become more disciplined about the way I spend my time every day. It’s way too easy to let the urgent drive out the important.

This note is thus a public commitment to getting better “organized.” I’m going to work hard to spend my precious time and energy on only three kinds of activities:
1. Meeting commitments I have already made;
2. Creating new commitments that meet my purpose and priorities;
3. “Green time” for brainstorming, exploring, and renewing my purpose

What do you think?