Timelines have consequences

And leaders need to understand this, says Prof Tim London of the UCT Graduate School of Business.

Leaders are always trying to maximise: profits, efficiency, resource allocation, employee engagement, clarity of purpose, etc. There are, of course, many ways of trying to increase the impact of initiatives, but one that often gets overlooked is the issue of timelines. There are virtually always numerous timelines operating concurrently, regardless of organisation type or job function. Because they are so ubiquitous and accepted as immutable constraints, the impacts they can have on a variety of factors often go unnoticed. Similarly, their use as a leverage point for creating change or improvement in organisations is often overlooked by leaders, minimising opportunities for improvement or, at the very least, maintaining potentially damaging situations.

Impacts of Timelines on Organisations
Timelines have many impacts on organisations, most notably on the work that employees do and in terms of the overall organisational culture. For your employees, timelines will focus attention on the most pressing tasks, regardless of whether they’re actually the most important issues facing the organisation. This can lead to employees prioritising work in ways that are detrimental to organisations, as essential work is only being done when its due date approaches as opposed to when it is most impactful.

Shorter timelines also have the impact of encouraging people to focus on achieving outcomes, even when it is at the expense of processes. This can not only lead to unsustainable approaches to work, it can also encourage behaviours that are unethical, illegal, or simply of lower quality.

If there is an abundance of short-term goals to hit, this can also have the effect of moving people’s focus from the strategic goals of the organisation.

In these scenarios, the day-to-day work is disconnected from larger issues facing the organisation while also creating a greater amount of disconnection between individuals and different groups within the organisation.

Obviously, in those scenarios, an organisation’s culture can change quite dramatically. As individuals scramble to accomplish short-term goals, they are much more likely to behave as individual contractors: looking out for their own targets with little investment in the overall good of the organisation. Similarly, this lack of connection to the organisation will often translate to less meaningful interactions. All of this builds a culture of individual opportunism, tribalism and disengagement. If you work in an organisation where people complain about office politics, there are high rates of turnover, or productivity is low, you are probably suffering through this type of toxic culture.

In these types of cultures, not only does current productivity suffer, but also the longer-term sustainability potential of the organisation. Current employees grow less connected to the organisation and key strategic issues are not addressed timeously. Crucially, however, is that this then influences how willing and able those people are to adapt to changing needs while simultaneously making the organisation less attractive to the best and brightest candidates who might otherwise replenish the talent pool. In other words, a fixation on short timelines can not only damage your organisation now, it can damage efforts to meet longer timelines (especially those tied to sustainability or strategic goals).

Understanding and Using Timelines
Obviously, timelines are hugely important to what actually gets done in the organisation. This means that they are key leverage points where leaders can make adjustments to improve their organisation. Some of these timelines are set by external agencies or factors: regulators, politics, earnings statements, or legislation may enforce some timelines on an organisation from the outside. Most organisations have more internal timelines, however, ranging from performance review cycles to committee meetings to billing periods. Oftentimes, the external and internal timelines become intertwined, with external timelines driving the creation of one or more internal timelines.

What can get lost in this mess of differing timelines is a sense of control over both when to set timelines and also which timelines are actually most useful to the organisation.

Due dates and deadlines can become almost rote parts of our jobs, meaning we can assume that we have little power to change them and must deal with their consequences, both good and bad. The first step to leveraging timelines to your advantage is simply taking inventory of which ones you can and cannot control. Once you have done that, it is essential to start to map out the impacts of each timeline, including how they benefit the organisation and what challenges they may cause.

In doing this, leaders can get a clearer and more critical view of just which timelines they are working with, how they tie into the organisation’s purpose and mission, and what benefits and flaws they introduce into the organisation. This is a powerful starting point for then being able to weed out or change problematic timelines, build in new ones to address gaps, or work on your messaging to ensure that shorter timelines are more clearly tied into longer timelines to match up tactics and strategy for your people. Building on this, talk to people who are working to these timelines to get insights into just what the different times encourage and discourage them to do. This can give you clarity on where to change to improve processes and move beyond simply tracking outcomes. Leaders will find that, with timelines aligned with each other, their people are much more focused on key tactical and strategic goals and their culture becomes one of connection, rather than segmentation.

Some Questions to Ask to Maximise Timelines

  1. What timelines are we currently working towards?
  2. For each timeline: is this externally or internally generated?
  3. For each timeline: in what ways is it focused on process and in what ways is it focused on outcomes?
  4. Which timelines can we control and which are outside of our control?
  5. In what ways do our timelines interact with each other?
  6. How do we currently communicate about the connections between timelines and organisational goals, and are there areas of strength/weakness that could be addressed?
  7. What activities or outcomes do our timelines focus our attention on, and how important do we think these activities and outcomes are to the organisation?
  8. Are there any timelines that we should remove or change?
  9. What do the people who actually work towards each timeline think about how the timeline helps/changes/hinders their work?