Posted on
October 26, 2023

Finding Time for the Future

"I’m too busy. I don’t have time for that…" - Everyone

In recent newsletters, we explored the dark side of OKRs and objective-driven decision making. Today we will (briefly) add one more side effect of OKRs, to launch a discussion of time, and how we (as leaders) spend it.

When OKRs are organically created by autonomous, independent teams, there is a strong tendency to overfill the plate. Overcommitment, by taking on too many simultaneous goals, can lead to underperformance and burnout. But leaders know that “mobilizing commitment” is a key part of their role, so the temptation is real.

Good leaders dial this in, setting rough limits to focus on around 3 goals at a time, and encouraging their teams to do the same. This becomes an essential part of an effective time management strategy, one that leaves time for needs that are not driven by committed goals.

“Ironically, many managers report that they never have time to do what they believe they should focus on. From this vantage point, sticking with priorities often becomes an act of courage and pattern breaking, even character building.” - Marilyn Paul and David Stroh, “Managing Your Time as a Leader”

For leaders, time management is an essential skill, and self-help books like Steven Covey’s “First Things First” have suggestions. For example asking yourself:

  • What am I avoiding?
  • What feels most urgent and compelling, yet might not actually be so very important?
  • What essential tasks have I “not gotten around to” for the past several days, or weeks, or months?
  • Who am I blaming for their part in not getting something important done? What is my role in that?

For leaders, the answers to these questions usually point to a lack of time for strategic thinking.

In the workplace, this battle for our time is not new. Work is elastic, as Parkinson’s Law tells us: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Yet time is inelastic, as Peter Drucker reminds us: “One cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time. The supply of time is totally inelastic. No matter how high the demand, the supply will not increase.”

But in this battle, strategic thinking is a consistent loser to “getting sh*t done”. The tyranny of status quo rituals like annual budgetary planning, quarterly planning, and project status reviews drown the open space on the calendar, and leave little room for what strategy needs: time to think about the future.

"The future whispers to us in faint signals rather than full sentences." - Paul Schoemaker

Henry Mintzberg argues that strategy is emergent, that it is learned through observations of the results of our work, and that “strategy is a pattern in a stream of decisions.”

But patterns must be seen, molded, debated, and shaped. Synthesis of this kind rarely happens under duress. When leaders are constantly in reactive mode, this kind of time is elusive.

Leaders know they are squeezed for time. How bad is it?

A 2018 Harvard Business School survey of CEOs found that they spend 36% of their time in reactive mode, handling unfolding issues.

While fire-fighting offers an opportunity to drive some strategic thinking in Kairos time, it rarely shifts attention from the short-term to the longer-term.

Of their structured time, strategic work is but a fraction of their time.

A survey done by Bridges Consultancy confirmed this, finding that 48% of leaders spend less than 1 day per month on strategic work (per their 2020 report).

It is these (missing) conversations that impede the identification, planning, and development of new strategic capabilities for the organization. A recent McKinsey survey found that 46% of leaders cite “lack of time to develop capabilities” as the top challenge to in-house capability development.

But what if this is actually the appropriate amount of time to dedicate to envisioning the long-term needs? If the future is unknowable, why bother spending time trying to predict where it is headed?

In some circles, this is a common counterargument. Good execution beats good strategy, some say (...but not Roger Martin, who shreds this argument at the end of his book, “A New Way to Think”).

But those that see forecasting as a fool’s game might be missing the point. They are distracted by thinking that the aim is to get predictions “right”. But Karl Weick said that forecasts of the future should be “driven by plausibility, not accuracy.” Sense-making of the business environment includes discussions of future trends, like demographics or technology evolution (see Wardley Maps). This sense-making “requires active monitoring of the environment and environmental change with forecasts being updated as a function of environmental change.” (Xiao, Milgram, & Doyle, 1997). It is this active monitoring that opens up challenges to the organization’s mental models (which anchor the status quo).

So how much time should we be spending on strategic thinking?

In his book, “One-Hour Strategy”, Jeroen Kraaijenbrink devises a simple rule for leaders:

"Executives spend one hour per day, managers spend one hour per week, and employees spend one hour per month on strategy." - Jeroen Kraaijenbrink

While this may seem light, finding even one hour can be a challenge, with all the competing needs. Other studies show that a manager should optimally spend 6 hours each week with each of their direct reports:

“In most cases, more time with the boss is a good thing. As people rose from one to six hours spent with their direct leaders, they became 29% more inspired about their work, 30% more engaged (that is, likely to recommend their company as a great place to work), 16% more innovative, and 15% more intrinsically motivated (finding something interesting in most of their tasks).”

Between one-on-ones and reactive fire-fighting, the week can fly by.

If you are able to find the hour, how can you spend it?

Kees van der Heijden encouraged business leaders to create time and space for strategic conversations, which could be quite informal, where the aim is to align the mental models of “the people with power-to-perceive, those with power-to-think, and those with power-to-act.”

This would result in a set of scenarios about possible futures, where the scenarios were designed to push leaders to shed their natural defenses of the status quo.

Finding these scenarios, through conversation, is an art and a science, he said. Colleagues of van der Heijden spoke of the power of open-ended questions to drive these conversations. Peter Schwartz said that he “must have used 30-40% of my time there (at Dutch Shell Oil) using these questions.”

Here is one example of this “seven questions approach”, derived from the work of Amara and Lipinski (1983):

  1. If you could pose three questions to a clairvoyant who can foretell the future, what would you ask?
  2. In the best possible world, what would you hope for?
  3. In the worst possible world, what are your greatest fears?
  4. What pivotal events from the past few years provide good lessons for the future?
  5. What major decisions with long-term implications are faced at the moment?
  6. What major constraints do you experience inside/outside the organization/system?
  7. If all constraints were removed, and you could direct what is done, what would you do?

But having time for these strategic conversations can feel like a luxury in many organizations. Should our ways of working, as leaders, carve out structured time to guarantee that these conversations can happen? Something more than a 3-day offsite, twice a year?

One school of thought (derived from the lean manufacturing concept of “operator’s standard work”) advocates for finding more standard descriptions of the real work leaders do, ultimately seeking to define “Leader Standard Work” (LSW).

One blog post introduced it saying:

“Most of the leader’s standard work is focused on activities at the place where work is done, gemba, as this creates opportunities to interact meaningfully with direct reports and see for oneself how processes work. The remaining time is spent on more strategic planning and driving continuous improvement.”

LSW believes that some percentage of leadership work lends itself to structure and scheduling, while other parts do not. Standardizing and scheduling the parts that do increase the likelihood of carving out time for the parts that should be unstructured and less formal. When everything is loose, time gets away from us. Managers and leaders at the lower levels have a greater opportunity to standardize their work.

Source: Milliken

Consider this clip from Fortune, about a recent McKinsey survey:

“Middle managers are hearing and feeling mixed messages on how they should be spending their time. And this is where HR and business executives can play a role,” she tells Fortune. Managers spend the bulk of their time in four categories: administrative work, individual-contributor work, strategy-focused work, and talent and people management. Managers reported spending nearly one full day each week, about 18% of their time, on administrative tasks alone. They spend about 23% of their time on strategy-focused work and about 31% on individual-contributor work. Field says that employers, in recent years, have shifted to incentivize and reward more individual-contributor work within organizations."

Is a door opening for Leader Standard Work? (Is the advent of AI swinging it open wide?)

On LSW, Ian Gabrielides explains, “When first establishing standardized work, leaders often start with ‘what good looks like’ and detail the subsequent tasks that should be done to enable the organization to achieve excellence. Often these tasks are activities that we know we should be doing, but often find ourselves unable to spend time on them (or enough time on them) when daily tribulations cross our paths.”

His examples of success criteria, or “what good looks like” is shown below. Note the inclusion of what they call “sacred time”, which carves out time for reflection and strategic thinking.

Source: Milliken

At the end of the day (or week, or year), it must be a balance between structure and informality. Great leaders used to “manage by walking around” (how does this work today? Hmmm…), and the spontaneity of insights was prized.

Stephen Covey also talked of having both “a clock and a compass”. To move beyond the urgency of the clock, we need more than the Eisenhower Matrix.

We need the compass that results from strategic conversations.

But we must fight with the clock to get it.