Tag Archives: timespan

System Solution

“So, the Supervisor’s solution to fuel pricing cost more money in overtime and extra travel distance to the cheapest pump?” I nodded. “What would have been a Manager’s solution? You’re a Manager, what would you have done?”

“I actually did step in. It took us three months to figure out the problem was getting worse. The solution wasn’t in finding the lowest pump price for the day. We had to look at our system and think in a longer time frame. The Time Span for this task wasn’t a day, or even a week, it was 12 months.”

“What was the long term solution?”

“I got a fuel price, not the cheapest one, but one I could lock in on a 3 month contract for a tanker to be parked in our truck yard. I got three options going forward that capped a price escalation. That sets us for the year.

“We have a night security employee in the yard who now has something to do at night. He drives the tanker around and fills the trucks with fuel. The drivers come in at their regular time and the truck is all ready to go.

“The Supervisor’s solution about find the cheapest fuel price wasn’t the answer. It was looking at our system of fueling trucks.”

Big Picture as Context

“My project managers have to be focused on the individual project, and I have to be focused on the future,” Andrew repeated, looking more intense.

“Is that where it stops?” I asked.

Andrew thought for a moment. “No. When I focus on the future, I see what I see. But, if I imagine further into the future than that, play more what ifs, I get a sense of where the company is going. I sense an even larger context. Maybe I don’t understand it, maybe I cannot talk about it, but I get this sense. It’s my manager’s context. My manager has goals and objectives, decisions and problems that are different than mine. While I have a different level of work from my junior project managers, my manager has a different level of work than me. I may not know what that means, but I know it exists.”

“How important is it to know, to understand your manager’s context, or your CEO’s context?”

“On a daily basis, I am not sure I need to be reminded. Where my decisions and problems are clear, it may not be necessary. But things change. When there is uncertainty or ambiguity, I need to know the bigger picture.”

“You just slipped into an analogy, the bigger picture. What do you specifically mean?” I pressed.

Andrew chuckled, nodded. “The bigger picture might actually be that, a visual picture on the wall of something that does not exist now, but will exist in the future. But, to be more specific, big picture, as a context, would be a future point in time, a longer timespan. When bigger picture can be seen as longer timespan, it becomes measurable, and I know more clearly what I am accountable for and what my manager is accountable for.”

A Different Way to Think (About Projects)

“So, what’s your observation,” I asked. “Moving from a project manager in charge of three projects to a senior project manager in charge of 20 current projects, plus all the projects in the pipeline?”

Andrew looked down, studied the table. “Every single project has a beginning, middle and end. Each project has defined edges to it, resources are specific, and at the end, there is a finished project, very tangible.”


“Twenty projects are all in different stages, it’s fluid, the boundaries move. Sure, we create artificial borders and artificial time frames to measure things, compare statistics. But, there is a difference in how you play one, two or three projects and how you play a portfolio of 20. In a portfolio, we may play for a high profile project with slim margins to raise the company’s visibility. We might attempt a new technology, in which we are currently clumsy, to practice, get better. A single project game might fail its gross margin, where a portfolio game might propel the company in a direction without competitors (at least for a while).”

“So, is this just about having more projects in a portfolio?”

“Not at all,” Andrew replied. “Having 20 projects pushed me to think differently, but, thinking differently is more about the timespan of decisions. And we have to do both. My project managers have to be focused on the individual project, and I have to be focused on the future.”

Assessing Capability

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

It was a pleasure working with you last summer. I’ve been introducing the concept of Time Span to my colleagues and its been helping us lead tough HR conversations. Some were wondering if you had an assessment to help determine someone’s time span capacity.

This is a very popular question.  The answer is completely counter-intuitive.  Elliott’s caution was clear. Don’t go around judging people.  Do NOT play amateur psychologist.  You didn’t go to school for it, you don’t have a degree in it, your chances of being wrong are about 50/50, same as flipping a coin.

HOWEVER, most hiring managers are expert at the work.  Most hiring managers understand effective behavior and ineffective behavior.  Stick where you are an expert.  It’s all about the work.  I do not judge people, but, boy, do I judge the work.  By careful examination of the problem-solving and decision-making in a role, most hiring managers can easily pinpoint the level of work in the role.  If we can understand the level of work in the role, then the selection decision is easy.  “Is this person effective in the task assignments at this level of work, or not?”

Don’t play amateur psychologist, stick where you are an expert.  It’s all about the work.

Double Edge of Knowing

Habits are routine, grooved behaviors based on what-we-know. What-we-know is always based on the past.

Habits are a two-edged sword. Habits help us understand the world quickly. What-we-know creates patterns we can use to solve problems efficiently using a minimum of brain power.

Habits can prevent us from clearly seeing the present. What-we-know may not be accurate or lead us to mistake reality as a previous pattern (with a mistake).

Habits are part of who we are and resistant to change, because they are based on what-we-know. Habits are more powerful than reality, because reality is always new. Knowing prevents learning.

The Goal is Not the Next Project

From the Ask Tom mailbag:


How do you determine the time frame that a manager should be thinking into the future? Given your garden-variety project, do you figure “lead time” for the group? Example: team has to prepare documents for an audit in two weeks, we have an existing pool of docs to update. You’ve discussed this in the past, however your thoughts would be appreciated.


This question sets the perfect trap for the manager with short term thinking. Of course, this short term project has to be completed prior to the two week deadline. But here is what a manager needs to be thinking about.

What audit projects do I anticipate receiving during the next twelve months? What is the scope of those projects, how long will they take and what technical work is necessary? If I chart out a timeline of the number of projects over the next twelve months, how many overlap, or are there quiet periods in between?

Who will I need on my team to do the technical work, the research, the preparation and the review? Who will I need to perform the administrative work of tracking all of the elements and packaging the audit when the work is completed?

Who do I have on my staff now and who do I need to recruit? What impact will that have on my budget, in terms of expense to the anticipated revenue? When do I place the ads, when do I interview and when do I make the hires?

How long will training take to get these people up to speed to perform this audit work? Who will do the training?

All of these questions require way more than two weeks. These are the issues for the successful manager. The typical timespan (working into the future) for any working manager is 12-24 months.

The Future in Today

“But, what about today?” asked Kristen. “It’s great to think about the future, but I have to get stuff done today.”

“The anchor for the manager has to be some specific time point in the future. Every action we take only has meaning related to that future point in time. Call it planning, call it a milestone, call it a goal.

“You are right. You have to get stuff done today. Action occurs today. The role of the manager is to inspect that future time point and create today’s effective action. Here is the question. What is the destination, and what is the most effective action we can take, today, to get there?

The Difference From Team Leader to Supervisor

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I was just promoted from team leader to supervisor. My boss told me not to worry, things wouldn’t be that different. With all due respect, I think things will be different, I just don’t know in what way?

The biggest difference is the time span of your goals and objectives. As a supervisor, your focus will shift to the future.

As the team leader of your crew, you thought about what needed to be produced this week. As a new supervisor, you have to think about the schedule for two weeks, three weeks or more, depending on the variables in your system. It’s not just people, also, materials (with lead times), equipment, preventive maintenance, consumables, logistics, raw material specs, system constraints, first piece inspections. Your job will require more prep and staging time.

All of this requires you to think further into the future, using your own discretionary judgment to make decisions and solve problems.

Endorphins in the Brain

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Do you think the time span for an individual changes depending on their passion for the task they are working on? I observe some employees who seem to have a hard time effectively planning some specific shorter time span tasks (1-2 weeks out), while at the same time they are able to effectively plan out personal “work” over a year in advance. I have observed this with more than one employee and was curious if you had contemplated this or come across research related to this.

There is a distinct difference between maximum capability and applied capability. Maximum capability is the stuff that we, as managers, cannot see…but it’s there.

Applied capability is the stuff that we CAN see. Applied capability is observable, there is evidence of output. The longest time span tasks are most observable based on these conditions –

  • The team member has the necessary skills (technical knowledge and practiced performance).
  • The team member has interest or passion for the work.
  • The task or behavior is consistent within the context (culture) of the work environment.

So, it’s that second condition you are asking about. Interest or passion drives focus, attention and duration. Applied capability (what you see) gets pushed further out whenever there is interest around the work.

So, what you are seeing is an attitude (lack of interest) related to shorter term tasks. Your role, as a manager, is to tie things together, make the connection between interest and the task. Sometimes it is not intrinsic interest, but connected interest. I may not have interest in the project, but certainly have interest in the reward of the project that allows my to purchase the boat (home, car, lifestyle) of my dreams. Connect the work with interest, you will see higher applied capability.

But, here is the hat trick (three goals in a single game). Intrinsic reward comes from challenging work. Any work. Successful completion of challenging work creates endorphins in the brain. There is some work that is simply not challenging, yet has to be done. It is likely that work is a candidate for delegation. You are the manager. What is your role in accurately assigning challenging work and coaching people through work they should delegate to other team members?

What is VUCA?

There is term used in the vernacular of Agile that describes the challenge of every organization.


It’s an acronym for the world in which we live. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. VUCA. Without any further definition, Agile offers many good ideas in dealing with that world.

Acknowledging that we live in this VUCA world, can we do more than spitball solutions?

And, that is where Timespan comes in. Most people clearly understand there are some problems more complex than others, some decisions more complex than others. There are different levels of VUCA. Timespan gives us insight into those levels.
S-I – (0-3 months) – trial and error problem solving
S-II – (3-12 months) – best practice and SOP problem solving
S-III – (12-24 months) – root cause analysis
S-IV – (24-60 months) – systems (multi-system) analysis

When the Deepwater Horizon blew up in 2010, the world looked, aghast, at a terrible environmental accident. I watched the coverage, the cameras on the ocean floor in real time and the engineers struggling with the problem. They tried this, they tried that. They tried the blowout preventer, that didn’t work. They tried the blind shear ram, that didn’t work. They were in a mode of trial and error problem solving. Why?

The engineers were not trying to solve a three year problem. No one said, “guys, let’s go back to the drawing board and over the next three years, let’s develop a better oil well so this never happens again.”

They said, “guys, we have to solve the problem today. We don’t have time to design the real solution. Figure out a way to cap it!”

Our understanding of timespan gives us insight in the levels of VUCA, and the level of problem solving required to make sure Deepwater Horizon doesn’t happen again.