The Business of Time

“There will be a different kind of bigness to deal with, a complexity that is dispersed geographically, temporally, and organizationally. This calls for an organizational model of loose affiliation rather than tight control, with the hierarchy determined not so much by rank as by time and size: the higher levels are those that are concerned with longer periods of time over greater parts of the organization.” – Kevin Kelly

What would it look like to design organizations more explicitly around time frames rather than traditional command hierarchies? In practice, this occurs but it’s often a consequence of necessity rather than a coordinated way of structuring operations. Milestones, release dates, quarterly earnings, etc drive operations across many scales of the organization and yet the functional groups that work to meet these milestones are often not deliberately arranged to function optimally at these time frames. Program management is often left trying to enforce the schedule across multiple stakeholders moving at different rates. The nuance is that by making time the explicit top-level organizer, all functional groups are then evaluated and organized around their respective clock rate rather than how they fit in the reporting structure. An added benefit is that mid- to long-term planning becomes more explicit at the executive tier when the c-suite is required to continuously think in terms of strategy, longevity, and vision.

When functional groups are distributed and loosely-coupled, and when more autonomy is pushed out across the organization, the C-suite has more space to think in broader time frames. It’s like a set of differential gears where the smallest are spinning fastest but are coupled all the way up to the largest and slowest.

A rough sketch of how to explicitly structure the business of time:
1. The role of leadership works through the longest horizon, aligning strategy with vision from 6 months to ten years.
2. Upper management orients across release cycles over months.
3. Execution layers work in rapid iteration cycles on the order of weeks.
4. Customer support, branding, and marketing have the shortest timeframe, embedded in hourly cycles.

Notably, mechanisms for learning and evaluation must be institutionalized across all these scales. It’s critical that the organization be engaged in continuous feedback from the environment. Digital infrastructures that readily support feedback systems, fluid communication, knowledge repositories, and identity platforms are critical to the modern organization. Furthermore, with hierarchy made less explicit, information is less likely to be distorted as it moves up the chain of command. The result is an organization with nimble execution, continuous learning and adaptation built into the structure, and a leadership focus oriented towards the larger cycles of time rather than being distracted by the churn of turbulence in the present.

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