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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Archive for November 2013

Timelines

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“Time is an illusion.” – Albert Einstein

The US Postal Service just announced that in the New York and Los Angeles metropolitan areas it would immediately begin delivering Amazon packages on Sundays (New York Times 11/11/13). The announcement, a recognition that American’s shopping patterns have been forever altered by Amazon, and coming at the start of the 2013 holiday shopping period, may give the post office a much needed boost to its profitable package delivery service. Sunday delivery of packages will be, for the moment, a clear differentiator for the post office, since no one else offers that service and for consumers it gives them a way to receive their purchases even faster. It is likely to be especially useful to Amazon Prime customers who get 2-day delivery included in their membership and those who have no one at home during the Monday-Friday work week.

Amazon and the Postal Service are making a pretty safe assumption that when someone purchases an item online they desire to receive their purchases as quickly as possible. It is in Amazon’s best interest to get the package to the consumer, as it helps to eliminate a competitive advantage of bricks and mortar stores and it is in the consumer’s best interest in that they don’t have to delay receipt of the goods they have purchased. Their respective timelines are operating in a congruent fashion and because of that it seems a safe bet that the offering will be very popular. And until Amazon can download your purchases directly into your home 3-D printer, Sunday delivery of packages may be the best way to shorten delivery timelines.

Timelines, however, don’t always line up between two people or entities in a congruent fashion, and in fact non-congruent timelines are the source of much conflict between people, organizations, investors and countries around the world. When timelines between two efforts or events don’t line up there is an increased potential for failure of whatever those efforts or events are, with the corresponding finger pointing of whom and what organization or country is to blame. Timeline incongruences are often overlooked as a potential risk factor that can derail an effort or event.

Think of a school system for instance. It may look at gradually improving test scores as a long-term trend that their policies and practices are on the right track. However, to parents, a long-term view of the trend of test scores is irrelevant to what they want as consumers of educational services for their children. They want the system to be at its best for their child, enrolled in the school right now. Not some future promises that things will get better for other “unknown” students. They want their child to do well in life, to be prepared to succeed, even though intellectually the parents know that change is often a gradual thing in organizations, including school systems. Their timelines of what they want can be fundamentally in disagreement with the school systems timelines and a source of conflict.

The teachers themselves may look at their course material as a gradually evolving, ever improving body of information, but the student typically only goes through the course once and that incongruence has at it source a fundamental difference between the timelines that a teacher is operating under (a teaching career that could span 30 or 40 years) and the student (taking the course once for 12 weeks).

There are endless stories of timeline incongruence between Wall Street’s quarterly-driven expectations for publicly traded companies and what those companies feel that have to do in order to build a robust, lasting enterprise. Sometimes public companies will be taken private when the timeline incongruence, along with other factors reaches a breaking point. Other times companies that could go public choose to remain private in order to operate with a longer-term view.

At an individual level, when you try to compress what you can get done within a shorter timeline, the potential for error or worse increases dramatically. At one extreme people are “multi-tasking” trying to fit more and more into an abbreviated period of time. Incongruence in the timeline exists between what it actually takes to do a good job on something, how much time and attention you should devote, and the expectations that you can do more and more activities within a compressed period of time. Many managers today feel that they must “multi-task” to be viewed as capable in their jobs. But ask yourself, how would you feel if a cardiac surgeon was multi-tasking while operating on your heart? Perhaps banging out a tweet while looking for that bleeder? Or what would your comfort level be in a combat situation walking behind the multi-tasking person responsible for spotting landmines? Does managing a group deserve the same level of focused attention? Or when talking to an individual, what does a singularity of focus, all of your attention on that person, in that moment in time, what does that buy you? Plenty.

While it is not uncommon for despair to take the form of immediate suffering and pain, ultimate despair seems to be driven when no positive potential future is seen for oneself or one’s children. And while people who can see a path forward to a better future are often very positive, even in trying circumstances, if you can’t see that better future, attitudes and behaviors can quickly turn in a very negative direction. It doesn’t matter if you are living in poverty in the rural south of the United States, within an inner city urban center, barely hanging on in a refugee camp, trying to survive a natural disaster or being controlled by a “benevolent” government. If you can’t see a bright future on your timeline, not the timeline of an organization, society or government, negativity will flourish.

Incongruent timelines may also be having a large and perhaps largely ignored impact on various peace negotiations around the world between countries. Americans tend to be fairly impatient, wanting to see progress on an issue within a fairly short period of time. Our maximum timeframe of focus is usually about one election cycle. But what if you are in negotiations with someone who has a very different timeline view than you? What if you are negotiating with someone who is thinking in hundreds or thousands of years and not driven by a 4-year election cycle? Their goal is not necessarily to achieve “immediate” progress on an issue or to resolve a conflict and put it behind them. With a long-term timeline view, the goal may be to simply do what it takes to pass time until more favorable conditions present themselves, 10, 50 or 100 years from now. And when you are dealing with multiple countries, each of which who view their ultimate success as being guaranteed by a higher power, the chances of a successful negotiation with immediate improvements in conditions is diminished.

Albert Einstein may be right about time being an illusion from a physicist’s view point, but from the view point of countries, people and individuals, all of whom live on a timeline, incongruence on respective timeline intervals and scales can at best cause miscommunications and at worst complete failure of the event or efforts underway.

© 2013 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.

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Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 12, 2013 at 9:30 am

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