Time Span (#100)

Today is the 100th post of Friday Forward. As we head into December, I’m reflecting on past posts. I’m also thinking about the future of Friday Forward and what the next 100 weeks might look like. It’s a good time of the year to be both reflective and prospective.

This future view of time ties in to an interesting, and even somewhat controversial, concept developed by Dr. Elliott Jaques, a multi-disciplinarian in Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Philosophy and Linguistics. Jacques concluded that we all have a natural time horizon we are comfortable with, a concept he coined “Time span of discretion.”

The idea is that each person’s ability to grow, lead and make good decisions in their job is limited by their capacity to think about certain time spans, or when these decisions “come due.” In other words, we each have an absolute upper limit on our capacity to handle time.

Here are some examples:

  • Some jobs involve routine tasks with a time horizon of up to three months. E.g. shift workers, customer service representatives, mechanics, etc.
  • Some jobs require people to make decisions over several years. E.g. various managerial positions with time horizons between one to five years.
  • Some positions require a multi-year (5-10) view of work and outcomes. E.g. small company CEOs and large company executive vice presidents.
  • And some positions require that time be spent regularly thinking decades – even centuries — into the future. e.g. visionaries like Einstein, Mother Theresa and Naveen Jain.

The implications of Jaques theory on our professional lives is profound as it suggests we are most effective working within our natural time span of discretion. When a job/role is beyond this time span, we are more likely to fail. Similarly, if work decisions fall below our time span of discretion, we may not feel challenged and will be equally dissatisfied.

It is not that simple however, as there is also a chicken and egg angle with this theory. It follows the same principal of comfort zones in that we need to break out of a routine in order to learn and grow. For example, if we operate in one time span at work 90 percent of the time, then we are likely to carry the same thinking into our personal lives and vice versa. I am guilty of this as I often think more about what my family needs from me in the long run rather than in the present moment.

Whether your natural time span of discretion is shorter or longer, it’s important to step back from time to time to evaluate both the short- and long-term. This is one reason why our leadership team gathers for an off-site every quarter to plan out our goals for 2018 and beyond. Quarterly and annual off-sites are a great way for everyone to work “on the business” and not “in the business.”

The opposite is also true. Visionaries often benefit from shortening their time horizon and taking stock of how their long-term planning is materializing in the present. Elon Musk, for example, has a vision of revolutionizing the automotive industry, but his company’s most pressing need is to figure out how to produce the cars it has presold before it runs out of money.

As we head into December, it’s a great time to begin thinking about where your natural time span of discretion lies; how you can both leverage that innate strength while simultaneously operating outside your comfort zone to gain perspective.

Quote of the Week

“Long-range planning does not deal with the future decisions, but with the future of present decisions.”

Peter Drucker

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