Why time constraints are so important in our lives

Time seems to be always the most important dimension when people collaborate. Yet we fail to appreciate how much.

It is certainly true that remote working has revealed many hidden pathologies of our business life. Since we isolated in our virtual cubicles, our calendars have become blocked with hundreds of meetings. As a result, this has created a number of unprecedented challenges.

I ran a workshop with 3 groups of colleagues to identify their biggest challenge when in a meeting. They all mentioned, lack of structure, disengagement of attendants, and people running off topic and talking for too long. An underlying parameter in all of the above seemed to be the complete lack of time constraints within their meetings.

Ironically enough, to run the workshop I used a liberating structure, called “1-2-4-All”, which comprised of a sequence of short and time-constrained steps that forced them to think, collaborate, and get to outcomes fast. By constraining them, they actually felt more liberated, focused and productive.

How Time is of The Essence

Every time I work with a new product team, the discussion always seems to be around how we should organise ourselves? Should we use Scrum, Kanban or some other approach? Most engineers will usually say they prefer Kanban. This is because it suits with DevOps practices and it gives them the “flexibility” to choose what to work on as they go with no upfront commitments and no timeboxes. They often feel that Scrum constrains them and is too rigid.

There is a particular fallacy with this approach.

What happens when we have long deadlines

According to the business management guru and author Eliyahu Goldratt, project (or product) teams usually suffer from two self-defeating behaviours, the Student Syndrome and the Parkinson’s Law. (Critical Chain, 1997)

Student Syndrome refers to the fact that most students will waste a lot of time procrastinating ahead of an exam or deadline and will only start putting the effort at the last moment and just before the deadline. This creates a lot of last-minute stress as there is no buffer left. Although students realise that had they put the effort earlier things would have been much easier, they still keep demonstrating the same behaviour over and over again.

In addition, Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. In other words, if you are given 2 months to finish a project, that is the minimum amount of time it will take to complete as people will be reluctant to declare early finishes, and will use the extra time to perfect their work.

According to Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints, every system has a limited number of constraints that need to be identified, and leveraged in order to create better flow. In project management, the solution that Goldratt suggests is to remove all safety buffers from the plan. Essentially he suggest to use shorter and more ‘aggressive’ deadlines. This eliminates the student syndrome and reduces the impact of Parkinson’s Law.

In other words, Goldratt suggests exploiting the constraints to the benefit of the system.

However, professional sports take this a step further.

The Impact of Time and Space Boundaries in Professional Sports

All professional sports and games have specific timeboxes within which they are played. For instance, a typical football match has a 90-min timebox while NBA basketball has a 48 minutes timebox. Any game has boundaries in time and space.

Imagine a football field with no boundaries, where players could run as far as they like, and play forever. Such a game would be impossible.

However, Cricket, in its most traditional format (first-class), could last up to 5 days, including a number of lunch and tea breaks, and of course time for sleep. Unfortunately, this made the game boring and was driving fans away.

In 2003, the Twenty20 form of Cricket was established in England, which was designed to be played in a single evening. This has made the game more exciting, and appealing and has helped boost Twenty20 Cricket’s popularity to younger audiences. Twenty20 cricket is currently one of the fastest growing sports in the world.

Therefore, just by introducing a tighter time limit the game of Cricket has become more exciting and has attracted tens of millions of new fans.

What is the recipe for creativity and innovation

Daniel Coyle in his book “The Talent Code”, talks about futsal, an indoors version of football developed in Uruguay. Due its nature futsal has a smaller playing environment, the ball is smaller and the players are closer to each other. This restriction helps players develop much better ball handling skills than regular footballers and be more creative within a confined space.

IDEO is one of the most prominent design firms in the world, responsible amongst other things for the invention of the Mouse and the design of the first notebook-style computer.

In 1999, the American TV channel ABC gave them a unique challenge, to design a better shopping cart in 5 days. They filmed the whole process. In the video, IDEO’s founder, and Professor at Stanford University, David M. Kelley, explains how they are using time constraints to boost creativity.

If you don’t work on a time constraint, you will never get anything done because it is a messy process. It can go on forever.

David M. Kelley, IDEO founder

He refers to the process that his team is following as focused chaos with time constraints playing a big part in it.

Irrespective of the field of human endeavour, it is obvious that time plays a fundamental role in our lives. Time constraints create focus, make us more creative and collaborative, help us avoid waste, reduce procrastination and get to outcomes fast. This is true whether it is in a game of basketball, in an office meeting or a project.

Time seems to be the secret ingredient that tunes our minds and helps us progress.

Let’s make good use of it!

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