Adjusting to Team Time Warps


Have you ever wondered why one person is always late for meetings while another one is always early?

Chances are you're dealing with people who see time differently. For some, time flows from the future into the present and on to the past at a steady rate of 60 minutes every hour. Others see time as a river carrying them forward to an uncertain future. And while everyone is aware of the three elements of time -- the past, the present and the future -- cultures see these in different ways.

Western European cultures tend to have a strong future focus -- what's happening in the present is focused on securing a good future outcome. The past is relatively unimportant, since "you can't change history."

Cultures with a present focus let go of the past, don't worry about the future and fully enjoy the experience of the present. This focus can be a wonderfully relaxing experience, but it can also lead to the need for immediate gratification and short-term payoffs -- traits of many "youth" cultures. 

More traditional societies -- for example, those found in Africa, Asia and southern Europe -- tend to have a past focus, looking to preserve their history and respect family and society elders. For them, the present is a continuation of the past, and there's not much point in doing too much planning for an uncertain future. In these societies, the Western view of time as a strictly linear function of seconds, minutes, hours and days is seen as very limiting.

Understanding these different perspectives can help you in a project environment. For example, someone with a strong present focus will see the discussion they're currently engaged in as important and consider it inappropriate to cut it off just to be on time for a meeting. But if that meeting is organized by a forward-looking person with a strong time focus, there will be problems.

One way to decipher where you and your team members are in the "time warp" is to use U.S. psychologist Thomas J. Cottle's Circle Test. Grab a sheet of paper and draw three circles on the page, arranging them in the way that best shows how you feel about the relationship between the past, present and future. Use different size circles to indicate relative importance and separate or overlap the circles depending on how much influence each one has on the others. 

Here are two examples that illustrate the different ways people view time:


The purple circles represent a strong future focus with the present feeding into achieving future outcomes. There's little connection to the past. This is typical for a lot of time-conscious project managers focused on planning their projects (a future focus) and then implementing the plans (a present focus).

The blue circles show a strong present focus firmly grounded in past experiences and traditions. The present is a bit more important than the past, but the future is not really connected to the present and of lesser importance. Don't expect someone with this perspective to be very interested in planning for an uncertain future or being on time for meetings. Their view of success is built on the strength of existing relationships and systems. 

The Western/project management focus on time can be effective, but it can also be dangerous, particularly in cross-cultural teams and when dealing with clients with a different time focus. The stress of missing an impending deadline can affect people's health, cause then to sacrifice their relationships and lead to shortcuts in quality and missed opportunities. Is it really worth destroying value by de-scoping a project just to achieve a deadline (especially if it's artificial)? A more balanced view may be that while the deadline is missed, there are opportunities to deliver 100 percent of the scope, identify additional hidden value, and maintain a healthier and happier project team. The optimum answer depends on the circumstances of the project and the time focus of key stakeholders.

What's your time orientation and how does it fit with the rest of your team and other stakeholders?

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