The Time Trap

There are only so many hours in a day. Here's what science says about getting the most out of them.
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If it's true that no two businesses are alike, it's also true that there is one thing all entrepreneurs possess in equal measure: time. It doesn't matter if your company is big or small, successful or struggling, productive or inefficient -- there are just 24 hours in a day. The clock ticks relentlessly, and at the same speed, for everyone.

Or does it? An emerging body of research suggests that you may have more control over time -- and the way it affects your business -- than you think. In fact, researchers in the emerging field of "temporal design" argue that managers should factor time into their business strategies and organizational structures just as they would other resources, such as financial reserves or number of employees. "Time is such a scarce commodity," says Deborah Ancona, a professor at MIT. "There is a huge amount of power and a huge amount of possible value to a business if we can learn to use time better."

Yet few entrepreneurs ever stop to think about time -- except, perhaps, to gripe that they don't have enough of it. It's easy to see why. After all, when you're racing to meet an impossible deadline, stopping to contemplate the nature of time itself seems like little more than a waste of, well...time. But you may be surprised at what you can learn.

Indeed, as anyone who has done business abroad can attest, every culture creates its own concept of time. Robert Levine, a psychologist at California State University Fresno, for example, surveyed 200 college students in California and Brazil about the definition of "early" and "late." American students believed they were "late" for a lunch date when they made a friend wait for 19 minutes, compared with 34 minutes for the Brazilians. In another study, pedestrians in both countries who were not wearing watches were asked to estimate the time. The errors in Brazil were twice as large as those in California -- 14.24 minutes off of accurate time versus 6.93 minutes.

What does this mean for your business? Plenty, says Martha E. Sherman, a consultant in New York City. That's because it's not only countries that possess unique attitudes toward time. Groups within a culture, such as your company, also create their own "temporal cultures." Once you understand that culture, you can influence the way time functions in your organization.

All companies exist in a cacophony of competing time rhythms, relentlessly drummed out by, among others, suppliers, clients, and competitors, says Allen C. Bluedorn, chair of the Department of Management at the University of Missouri in Columbia and author of The Human Organization of Time. These "external pacers" are known among academics as zeitgebers -- German for "time givers" -- and they exert tremendous influence on your company. Zeitgebers can include anything from the fiscal year to the production schedule of a supplier to the school calendar in your community, and every company possesses a unique set of them. The more activities in your organization are synchronized with a particular zeitgeber, the more you're "entrained" to it.

"If your leader is late all the time, you might find that legacy in other places in your organization."

Entrainment in itself is not necessarily a negative. After all, your company needs to be in sync with the requirements of employees, customers, and others. But it can create inefficiencies. Consider one zeitgeber that virtually all businesses share: the quarterly business calendar. MIT's Ancona cites a study of 100 sales teams at a major telecommunications company. At the beginning of the quarter, the study found, sales were slow, with staffers finishing up paperwork from the previous quarter and devising a strategy for the weeks ahead. As the quarter wore on and the quarterly deadline drew near, the pace of activity increased, with salespeople working harder and faster, particularly in the fourth quarter, when bonuses hung in the balance. The problem? "Other things got pulled into that cycle," Ancona says. Customers, for example, learned to put off purchases until the end of the quarter, when increasingly desperate salespeople were more likely to grant discounts. It's a stark example, says Ancona, of how a company's entrainment pattern was shaving dollars off the bottom line.

That's why it's important to take an inventory of your own zeitgebers. "There are lots of things you can entrain to," says Bluedorn. "It's one of the key decisions that a company has to make: What are the really important zeitgebers to pay attention to? And which should we try to separate ourselves from?"

A good place to start is with the ones that are no longer relevant -- the "zeitgebers past," in Bluedorn's parlance. Reviewing a study of workers at a large state prison, for example, Bluedorn learned that eight-hour shifts began at 6:20 a.m., 2:20 p.m., and 10:20 p.m. -- times set to coordinate with a trolley that delivered many employees to work. There was just one problem: The trolley stopped running in 1934. "A lot of organizations entrain to something for so long that they don't remember why," he says.

Sherman found something similar when studying the temporal behavior of a financial services company. Senior staffers, she noticed, all left work at about the same time each evening. She discovered that they'd planned their nightly escape for just about a half hour after a certain boss left -- but that boss had long since left the company and the execs had never bothered to alter their schedule.

The lesson: Take a close look at your company's recurring activities, such as staff meetings, deadlines, company picnics, employee evaluations. These create patterns of activity that can last for years. "Just by acting, you're creating patterns that are inertial and that might dominate your firm," Ancona says. And think about your own behavior as it relates to time because that's a big zeitgeber in and of itself. "Leaders make a big impression," she says. "If you have a leader that is late all the time, you might find that legacy in other places in your organization."

Understanding time cycles and entrainment is a key step toward getting a better handle on your company's internal rhythms. But it's also important to understand how your company experiences time. Researchers like to describe time as either "monochronic" or "polychronic." Monochronic time is characterized by performing one task within a fixed period; polychronic by performing multiple tasks, often with frequent interruptions.

Both have advantages and disadvantages. Polychronic companies tend to have a high degree of interaction among employees -- a plus when it comes to innovation, information sharing, and flexibility. The downside: "unproductive dithering," says Bluedorn. On the other hand, when a company is mostly monochronic, there's more focus and efficiency but less flexibility and innovation. The most efficient companies are those that have developed a balance, Bluedorn says, creating times for employees to work both mono- and polychronically.

In a recent yearlong survey on a team of software engineers at a high-tech firm, Harvard University researcher Leslie Perlow found that the engineers were constantly in a polychronic state. They were frequently interrupted and seldom had more than an hour to concentrate on any one task. So Perlow created "quiet time" for the engineers. During periods that lasted from the start of the workday until noon, no one was allowed to interrupt anyone else, and everyone was to work on his or her own projects. Engineers reported a 65% improvement in productivity.

It's important to realize that temporal solutions like "quiet time" can't be instituted by employees individually, says Perlow. That's why temporal design should be a key strategic issue for a company leader.

It's worth making time for.

Last updated: Jun 1, 2004




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