Quick, Quick, Slow: Time and Timing in Organizational Change

wordpress clockWhen we talk about the work of crafting organizational change, time is often an issue. Time is money. There is never enough time. Decisions are taken too quickly or too slowly – like watching paint dry. The planning workshop was hurried to meet a contract deadline. A feedback presentation is brought forward, because the CEO won’t be around next week. Things don’t happen when agreed or there is obsessive clinging to the timing of events and actions as if to a life boat in a stormy sea. Billions of years ago, the earth had a five hour day. But the impact of an asteroid, that  created the moon and its gravitational field, has been slowing down our planet ever since. Now days are getting shorter again, as the moon moves away from the earth. In the future, our 24-hour day will seem bizarre. The assumptions we share about time (our time logics Reay and Hinings 2009) are deeply embedded in our organisational cultures (Schein 1985) so any significant change inevitably challenges prevailing time logics. But whilst ‘The quicker the better’ may be a useful mantra in a fast food or travel business, anyone visiting a doctor or hairdresser will know that challenging time logics to get the timing right is a tricky business. This makes orchestrating the sequencing, pace and tempo of interventions a core competence for practitioners of organizational change. 5 Points for working with time in organisation change  1. Analyse whose time matters. Customers may have some choice about whether they patronise organizations that consume too much of their time (through slow service or faulty goods) or give too little consideration to their time (appointments with the doctor that are not long enough). Many employees feel that they have no choice. Compliance with the prevailing time logic seems like the only option. So we resent feeling at the beck and call of a boss who thinks that her time is the only time that matters or being time-jacked by a corporate change agenda that offers us few if any real benefits. Noticing whose time is valued and whose is not is a good first indicator of an organization’s temporal culture. 2. Map time projections and time anxieties. We are very good at locating a time problem in someone else: they are taking too long to agree a plan; it would help if you slowed down a bit; you might have all the time in the world but I have to meet a deadline; I can’t believe they haven’t done that yet. Realizing that different people inhabit different time worlds, at different times and in different contexts, and that these are as legitimate as my time worlds can be a revelation when working to change organizations. We think of time as perishable: it is lost if not used now and wasted if not used well. These time anxieties may be distributed randomly but it is more likely that they occur in patterns, being concentrated in different departments, in different jobs, locations, tasks, ages, genders and other organizational categories. Experiential mapping of time can offer intriguing insights into an organization’s temporal cultures.  3. Understand how time is managed now. Time is money and many devices are designed to control what happens when. Project aims and output specifications, Gantt charts, meeting schedules and the rhythms of planning are cultural devices to signal the time logics in use. These can vary between departments and between sites, and they can vary between consultant and client. Organizational change can overrun its schedule (or stall altogether) as planned interventions become caught up in the internal tempos of client organizations. All too easily, waiting (for meetings to be rescheduled, contracts negotiated, information to be available, and events to be organized) can become the norm. Who controls time and how is a critical factor in leading organizational change. 4. Notice when time is used to avoid or delay change. Planned change often requires working on shifting an organization’s macro relationship with time, say from being stuck in the past to a concern for the future (Sama 2009). Following the financial crisis, CEO’s, Organization Development (OD) and Human Resource (HR) specialists in banks are engaged in this type of work, which means reducing head count and redesigning reward practices. But the pace of change is not quick enough for taxpayers and those hit by spending cuts. Why does change take so long? Banks and governments respond by saying now is not ‘the right time’ to reduce salaries and bonuses as this might jeopardize banks’ abilities to retain the best people and the banks’ abilities to pay back their huge public loans. Who decides when is the right time?  5. Understand your own assumptions about time. The idea of ‘a right time’ employs an implicit sequencing of events and actions that are judged to be appropriate for the agenda for change. Sequencing refers to how the different steps, stages and interventions that are part and parcel of organizational change relate to one another, along with rationales about why they are sequenced in this or that way. The ‘why’ is crucial. Rationales offered by your client provide insights into their model of time and their attachments to long standing routines and practices. Aspects of sequencing that you find obvious, surprising, uncomfortable or just plain wrong, offer insights into your own model of time and to you attachments. You might find that your time logics can be difficult to challenge. This post is based on Chapter 5 from Changing Organizations from Within edited by Susan Rosina Whittle and Robin C. Stevens