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What's permanent? What's temporary? Perceptions of time frame the way we work together.

I was debating project and service management standards the other day. (Yep, I lead a sad life.)

To be honest, it wasn’t much of a debate. We all agreed on the big stuff – that projects and services overlap; that we all need to work together to deliver value; that people and skills matter more than standards and controls.  

A lot of motherhood and apple pie really. Boring.

Throughout the debate, I felt we were missing something. There was a big divergence in our underlying mindsets; we just weren’t getting at it. Afterwards, I realised this was due to the framing of the debate.

Everything was being framed in terms of the permanent organisation. People assumed that their organisation would last forever. Service management helped it deliver and continuously improve its products.  

Project management helped it introduce new products and create step changes in its capabilities.  But the organisation itself was inviolate, an essential part of the bedrock.

I’m now wondering how real that organisation is.

OK, there are big companies that seem to have lasted just about forever; government bodies and agencies that have been with us for as long as I can remember. And I guess the standards-bearers are mostly servicing such organisations.

But most of the organisations I’m working with are much more temporary than that. Groups of people come together to execute a campaign, then disband. Groups of companies form a joint venture that eventually either fails or morphs into a new company. Startups develop a new product then get acquired.

Even if the organisation is sustained through multiple campaigns or ventures or products, it lives in a pretty fluid state. It restructures itself regularly. People get moved around. It exists through a series of temporary incarnations that form, take the organisation to the next level, then disband and reform.

The idea of permanent standards that are equally relevant through each of these forms seems pretty questionable. So why weren’t we questioning it?

I’m also wondering if this isn’t part of the barrier between IT and Marketing in most organisations. IT people seem to embrace the concept of a perfect organisational ideal – define the standards, then try to move your organisation towards this ideal.  

Hence their talk of maturity models. Not only is the ideal defined, but you have a series of well-defined stages to pass through as you try to achieve it.

Marketing, on the other hand, lives in a flux of the temporary – a series of campaigns and events and launches and suchlike. You rarely hear people talking in terms of some imagined organisational end state.

Standards are very much framed from the former perspective. They’re about defining the ideal, not embracing a constant flux.  

That’s why our debate was boring – by focusing on standards, we’d been pushed into a common mindset from the beginning.

For an organisation, however, this mindset has consequences beyond boredom (although boredom can be a pretty big barrier to communication in itself). For example:

  • We lose sight of immediate priorities and needs. When we’re focused on the ideal, we concentrate on the activities that will take us towards that ideal.  

    Yet these may not be what our customers are asking for, or what our co-workers and other stakeholders need. We need to maintain a balance between servicing such immediate needs and improving for the future.

  • We lose sight of context. It’s easy to read most standards as defining the perfect state for every situation. Life’s more complex than that.  

    Standards need to be adapted to organisational context. We’ve all seen stupid mandates that have been promulgated because “the standard says to do it that way”.

  • We build an inflexible mindset. If there’s a single ideal state to aim for, and a well defined series of stages to go through in order to get there, then where’s the room for flexibility?  

    Live in that world for long enough, and you start to see everything in terms of a pre-planned progression towards a clearly defined goal. Again, life’s not that simple. Plans might provide guidance, but we need to adapt them as we learn.

  • We shut down debate. There’s nothing like having a “best practice” to put other ideas in their place. Once the ideal is defined, why would anyone need to think about any other way of doing things?

Time is a really important dimension. Assume your organisation is permanent and you’ll see things very differently to someone who sees it as temporary, a convenient structure for the current circumstances.

Likewise, people have very different perspectives on what constitutes short versus long term, on how much importance to place on adherence to schedules and deadlines, and so on.  

If we don't understand what time means to each other, we’re going to find it really hard to work together effectively.

We don’t get our assumptions about time onto the table often enough.

Image credit: Mike Andrews via Flickr

Graham Oakes

Published 21 May, 2013 by Graham Oakes

Graham Oakes helps people untangle complex technology, processes, relationships and governance. He is contributor to Econsultancy.

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