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Monday 12 March 2018

Interested in time travel? Know that the watched pot never boils...

(To see the other posts in this series go to the March and April 2018 Blog Archive.)

As mentioned in the introduction to this set of posts, the pace at which we perceive time to be passing is affected by how important progress towards an achievement or an event is to us: the 'watched pot never boils'.

If something is important to us it can often, regardless of the actual amount of time involved, feel as if ages are passing before it is achieved or happens. If an issue is not important to us, then the amount of time passing before it is addressed is of little or no personal significance (so even long periods of activity can go by almost unnoticed).

Also, how we perceive the passing of time is influenced by the cultures we live and work within and the habits they encourage us to develop. If we are used to working within a fast paced environment, we will become frustrated if results are not achieved quickly and will seek to hurry things up. If we are used to a slower pace, we will not worry about achieving results quickly enough and will happily 'go with the flow'.

These differing perceptions of time and the pace of activity will all be tangling and interacting with each other as a collaboration develops and progresses. This means that whilst people work together, each person may be seeing and working towards differing time horizons. If these differing perceptions are not managed effectively, they will cause mutual frustration and misunderstandings (and perhaps even conflict).

The first step towards managing people's differing perceptions of the speed and pace of time (and how quickly or otherwise people think things are being achieved) is to be able to identify them through behavioural cues and signals.

People who perceive time and activity as moving too slowly and that things are taking too much time to get done (the pot is taking too long to boil) will use the following types of easily recognisable phrases: 
  • We need some quick wins.
  • The deadline is fast approaching and...
  • We need to hurry up/get things moving.
  • We need to see some progress/see some action.
  • There is no sense of urgency.
  • We need some urgency.
  • When will you start?
  • When will you finish?
  • What are you doing now?
  • What is being done?
  • Let's set some interim milestones and deadlines.
  • The clock is ticking.
  • Quicker/quicker!

People who perceive time and activity as moving too slowly will, as the above phrases indicate, be preoccupied with the perceived rate of progress and achievement. As a result, they will likely express and exhibit frustration and impatience.

In terms of their behaviour, they will be quick and focused in their speech and actions. They may seem a bit pre-occupied and fidgety during meetings. They will probably demonstrate shaping behaviour during interactions with others, seeking to influence people towards clear decisions and actions that will demonstrate progress. When they get the opportunity to lead and ensure progress in a certain direction, they will grasp it firmly (and probably be reluctant to let it go). 

People who perceive time and activity as moving at an okay pace (they are not watching the pot boil) will use the following types of easily recognisable phrases:
  • All in good time.
  • Things will work themselves through.
  • Just give it time.
  • Things are chugging along just fine.
  • There is no need to rush.
  • I'm relaxed about how things are going.
  • Let's just allow things to come to a natural conclusion.
  • I have other things to get on with right now. These things are taking care of themselves.
  • Let's spend longer looking at this.
  • That is an interesting idea.

People who are not concerned about time and activity moving too slowly, as the above phrases indicate, will be relaxed about the perceived rate of progress and achievement. As a result they will exhibit contentment and unworried patience.

In terms of their behaviour, they will be relaxed and laid-back in their speech and actions. During meetings they may seem somewhat disinterested or distracted by other things. They may also be inclined to explore apparent side-issues and show significant interest in items under 'Any Other Business'. They will probably exhibit very friendly and engaging behaviour during interpersonal interactions and prefer informal gatherings and one-to-one chats rather than formal meetings. This is because informal gatherings and chats will allow more time for exploration of new and interesting topics and enable people to get to know each other. For a person not worried about when the collaborative pot will boil, this will be perceived as a very good use of time.

They will not be too quick to take opportunities for leadership. If they have leadership positions by right (or given to them) they will ensure things run smoothly and easily and that time is invested in informal 'getting-to-know-you sessions'. They will also want to explore innovative areas of a collaboration's work that are not currently 'centre stage'. Sometimes, feeling content with the rate of progress and perhaps not having too much of a personal stake in the achievements of the collaboration, they may delegate their leadership position to others (who may then seek to speed-up activity and progress).

On reading the above, it quickly becomes clear that there is no 'correct' perception of time and the pace of activity: those who perceive time and activity as moving too slowly, for them the watched pot is never boiling, will add a sense of urgency to a collaboration's work; those who are content with the pace of time and activity, they are not waiting for the pot to boil, will add a sense of reflection and informality to the collaboration's approach and also provide the necessary space for original and innovative thinking.

The two part challenge for a collaboration is, therefore, to avoid favouring one perception over another and find ways to manage and mix them to create a synergy that enables both efficiency and effectiveness: that enables a collaboration to not only get things done on time but also invest the time in getting new things done. 

An example of a collaborative initiative that achieved this is the Harlem Children's Zone; it did so by doing the following three things:
  1. It created an ambitious and imaginative vision (which encouraged investment of time in creative and innovative thinking).
  2. It focused on being not only innovative but also innovative at scale: producing innovation that could be reproduced more widely within different areas and contexts (which encouraged a focus on getting things done, impact and tangible results).
  3. It engaged with a partner experienced in consulting with the social enterprise sector (Bridgespan) that was at one remove from HCZ's day-to-day work. Being one step back from things enabled Bridgespan to see, probably more clearly than other partners, the mix of perspectives about using and investing time that was most appropriate for HCZ. (Did HCZ need to create room for reflecting and incubating scalable innovations? Or did urgency need to be injected to ensure impact at the right time and place?)                                          
More generally, collaborations can begin to meet the above mentioned challenge by discussing partners' expectations and obligations and agreeing the balance and timing of rewards partners will receive.   
So, in summary, encouraging partners to think explicitly about how they perceive, react to and use the time they spend working together will discourage unhelpful preconceptions about what should be happening by when. It will help create a shared sense of pace and time that is appropriate to a collaboration, what it needs to achieve and how it needs to achieve it.

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