Posted on
June 29, 2023

Chronos and kairos time in strategic decision making

In every team I’ve been part of we have some standard strategic decision making that follows planning cycles of years or quarters. But every now and then, a huge event will shake our organization out of this cycle and cause us to reassess everything. We are always making a decision in the now but how we consider the new circumstances is what makes the difference. 

Case in point, I was working on video conferencing devices right at the start of the pandemic. Everyone had to stay home so we assumed that usage would go up but that work on local event search might no longer be a priority. This meant that we needed to reassess other goals that didn’t connect people that were stuck in their houses. 

These two different types of planning are related to two Greek words for time: chronos and kairos time.

Chronos is a personification of clock time for the Greeks. It represents the calendar year and any other type of time that is repeated regularly and planned ahead. 

Kairos means a critical moment of opportunity to the Greeks. It is also an alternate name for the minor Greek god of luck and opportunity, Caerus. Kairos time is much more qualitative and usually associated with a narrative that people inhabit in their lives. 

Both of these concepts help us frame and understand these two types of strategic decision making. The better we can decide between which the better types of strategic decisions we will make.

Urgency and uncertainty as related to time

The first step is to consider what type of decision making should we be doing? The paper “Time and Organizational Improvisation” points to a relationship of uncertainty and urgency (or timeliness) as to decide what type of strategic decision making is appropriate. 

“Under abundant time and low uncertainty, managers can control their environment through detailed analysis, with a ‘planning’ orientation and may see no need for exemplary performances against the script.” This is chronos time and most standard planning cycles. 

They continue: “However, under conditions of time pressure and/or uncertainty, a planning orientation is insufficient and improvisation is proposed as an alternative or complementary orientation.” This is kairos time and they believe it is best acted upon through improvisation of a strategy. I’ll hold off on this concept of improvisational strategy for a future thread.

This led me to a 2x2 of the following:

Most of what we deal with today tends to be in one of the kairos time quadrants but there is a place for regular planning cycles still. Let’s talk about when that is before we dive deeper.

Revisiting the Eisenhower matrix

While the Eisenhower matrix is very simplistic it is a prioritization tool that many people can grasp quickly. I’ve found it can still be helpful in complex situations. 

Based on the definitions there is a mapping of chronos and kairos time to the matrix as well:

In this case we start to add a type of time which shouldn’t exist now: an anachronism. The term tends to mean that something is out of place, usually that belongs to an earlier time. If you have something to decide that isn’t important it is something your past self (or team) has left over until now, an anachronism. 

If we can now connect chronos, kairos, and even anachronisms with strategic prioritization how should we use them to our advantage? 

Chronos is well prepared decision making

We commit to planning cycles with our organizations for quarterly and yearly timeframes. This gives us space to focus on executing for a time before we come back to reconsider whether we need to change the priorities. 

During this time organizations tend to do the following:

  • Gather as much information as they can to make a decision
  • Maximize the impact and value of everything you do
  • Include everyone in decision making that could possibly be impacted - this can lead to a lot of “meetings before the meetings” and consensus decision making
  • Stretch the amount of time you consider decisions and close on them
  • Escalations are clean and within the hierarchies that exist - they don’t break ranks
  • Adherence to bureaucracies that exist and their processes

Inside of this planning we may have regular check-ins to make sure that unforeseen consequences aren’t happening (aka kairos) but only make changes when things are dire. Otherwise, most organizations just “chug along” with this process and keep double-checking their work.

Unfortunately, most teams don’t keep aligning their strategy with their larger organization until the planning cycle is forced upon them, which I think puts them falsely in the kairos domain…

Kairos is adaptive decision making

Whenever something big happens that makes the team reassess whether they are doing the right thing it is because of a crisis or opportunity. This is the time you can no longer just “chug along.” 

During this time organizations tend to do the following:

  • Make lots of bets with little information
  • Satisfice the impact and value of everything you do
  • Don’t depend on the usual sensor or data networks
  • Reduce the number of people involved in decisions to as few as possible - no buy is seeked by everyone
  • Require decisions are made quickly - sometimes in a particular meeting when the decision is surfaced
  • Informal networks are used to get approvals - this could mean going directly “to the top” to get coverage
  • Bureaucracies are bypassed - new practices could be formed and created during this time

A way to tell by using tripwires and survival metrics. Events could trigger a need for a closer look at the strategy and what we are doing. If you find that you need to pivot or stop something suddenly you are in kairos time.

Also, I’d consider looking at assumptions collected through assumption mapping. If the evidence available for certain assumptions are invalidated or brand new assumptions with little evidence are considered really important you may be in kairos time too.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” - Winston Churchill

These crises or opportunities can also be manufactured or faked by the organization. When we reorg it could be due to some major shift we want to make in the team but it creates its own little crisis to reassemble and realign the team. 

Using chronos and kairos to your advantage

In the end, you need to be able to switch between different types of time and be prepared to have different parts of your organization in different moments. 

That being said, some things don’t change between these types of time:  

  • Good decision making process matters - you can’t always make a decision that has a great outcome but you are more likely to (no matter the time) if you follow good decision practice and hygiene. 
  • Organizations are made of people that need to buy in - whether you are in chronos or kairos time the group will need to believe in what the organization does for it to survive.
  • Methods for checking your strategy - when we have to consider whether we are going the right direction we should be using a variety of methods to double-check we have the right strategy: strategic rehearsals, scenario planning, pre-mortems, etc. All of these methods can be used to try out switches from chronos to kairos time (and back). 
  • Big decisions are still big decisions - anything you consider a one way door whether it is at a regular cadence or at a particular event. 
  • Non-important decisions should be delegated and deferred - as we see in the modified Eisenhower matrix we shouldn’t waste our time on things that aren’t important but we should use it as moments to teach our strategy to the organization.
  • Resilience and robustness in the face of uncertainty will always matter - no one can tell the future and large impacts to the landscape your organization exists within will always be changing.

The question is not so much which type of time you should consider but how you appropriately balance between them and switch when appropriate.