The Art of Perfect Timing

We say timing is everything. And it is. But most of time it just seems like good luck.

Timing
In When, Stuart Albert says that using the right tools we can become better at managing and deciding issues of timing. Good timing is a skill that can be acquired.

We miss timing issues “because the way we describe the world and the tasks we must accomplish omit the kinds of facts we need….They fail to include all the sequences, rates, shapes, punctuation marks, intervals, leads, lags, overlaps, and other time-related characteristic that are part of the temporal structure of everything that happens, every action that is taken, every plan that is implemented.” And we routinely omit them from our thinking. I had never thought of it that way. I was intrigued.

If we don’t look for and note time-relevant characteristics like sequences, rates, duration, beginnings and endings, we won’t have the information we need to make good timing decisions. For example, we question whether or not the incentives we have chosen are the right ones, but we don’t consider why those incentives became important at that particular time.

Albert likens the structure of timing analysis to the structure of a musical score. There is a horizontal and a vertical dimension to it. Five horizontal—sequence, punctuation, interval, rate, and shape—and there is a vertical dimension—polyphony. The way they come together in an organization gives us insight into timing. These patterns form the temporal architecture.

Sequence refers to the order of events, like the notes in a melody.
Temporal punctuation refers to the times when events or processes begin, pause, or come to an end.
Interval (and duration) indicates how much time elapses between events and how long each event will last.
Rate refers to how quickly events are happening.
Shape describes rhythms and other patterns such as cycles, feedback loops, peaks and valleys.
Polyphony is the questions the interrelationship between all things happening at the same time.

We have to learn how to listen for the rhythm of what is going on, for its moments of tension or release, for moments when we must pause and change direction. Learning to view events in this manner will help us to spot opportunities first, execute on them well, and avoid costly mistakes.

The worst timing mistakes are not those that have significant human or financial costs, but those that appear to be inexplicable, where we ask, “How could someone have made a mistake like that?” One example of a sequence issue is Cooper Union’s decision to build a 166 million dollar engineering building on its campus in New York with the hope that a donor would step forward to fund the building. As of May 2013, nobody has. This is a classic sequence inversion error, playing notes out of order—in effect putting the cart before the horse. The first step should have been to attract the donor, who would help select the architect, and then become involved in the design of the building.

In order to get the timing right Albert says we need to move beyond spheres and networks, boxes and arrows, trees and branches, and instead think in terms of a tall polyphonic musical score in which a large number of processes and events are playing at the same time. Here’s more:
Musical Score
Re-imagining the world as a polyphonic, polyrhythmic score shifts how we think about the causes and consequences of events. Most of us spend a considerable amount of time looking “down the road” to the next period of time, the one we call the future. So, naturally, when we think about the consequences of our actions, we think in terms of a line, antecedents to the left, consequences—separated by some amount of time—to the right.

When we say A causes B, we are focusing on the horizontal dimension of the score. We are focused on what comes before (the cause) and what comes after (the effect). That is fine, but we should also be paying attention to what is going on vertically, to what must and must not go on at the same time.
When provides a more insightful way to look at events and the seven essential steps in a timing analysis. Timing issues are not always obvious but Albert helps us to know where to look and what to look for so we will be much more likely to get the timing right.

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