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Not always to the swift
Blitzing and leaving, accelerating delivery, or taking time to develop sustainable change? Sue Dopson investigates the effects of different attitudes to time within a single project 

People experience and think about time in different ways. Who does not have a colleague who seems to regard all deadlines as advisory only? Or one who thinks you are ‘late’ if you are not five minutes early to a meeting? If you ask people to comment on a draft document ‘by Monday’, how many think that means before 9am on Monday, and how many respond by the ‘end of play’? And, for that matter, when is the ‘end of play’? 5pm? 5.30pm? Midnight?

Depending on your own ‘temporal orientation’, you will find some of these attitudes infuriating or even downright unreasonable. But, as with many areas of life, there is no definitive right or wrong.

Your temporal orientation tends to be linked with your job or the cultural context in which you are working. For example, management commonly involves measuring activities and imposing quantitative time deadlines to increase efficiency and control in organisations. Conversely, professionals, like scientists, doctors or academics doing complex or innovative work, usually conceive of their work in more indeterminate, irregular and open-ended terms.

On a day-to-day basis, groups of people with different temporal orientations can usually rub along together reasonably amicably, give or take some eye-rolling in private (on both sides). But what happens when they have to collaborate?

Some colleagues and I investigated this question through a case study of a project in the UK’s National Health Service. We discovered that three differing temporal orientations created an environment rife with silent politics that quietly undermined an apparent agreement on a ‘quick-fix’ solution and caused the project to unravel over time.

The research study

The study focused on how a Strategic Health Authority (SHA) and a Primary Care Trust (PCT) within the Authority responded to a requirement by the Department of Health to submit plans to redesign primary health care in order to make efficiency savings. Although PCT managers had already started a bottom-up consultative process that they believed would deliver ‘sustainable change’, the SHA were not confident that the deadline set by the Department of Health would be met. So they commissioned a prestigious management consultancy to increase the pace of change.

This was a challenge to the long-term temporal orientations of clinicians and PCT managers, but it was done indirectly. The management consultancy’s independent analysis and solutions would be quick and difficult to contest, which not only supported the SHA’s agenda for accelerating delivery, but also relieved them of the difficulties of negotiating their desired timescale directly.

It was also in the management consultants’ interests to move quickly. The high-pressure environment of the consultancy and the rapid but precarious career trajectories of individual consultants was wholly geared towards meeting very short deadlines – or ‘blitzing and leaving’ as one partner put it. As a result, consultants habitually and unconsciously framed clients’ problems in ways such that fast-paced, short-term projects appeared to be the only solution. The solution would then be based on existing models because consultants ‘simply haven’t got time to do it any other way’.

The consultants organised the NHS project around a model and timeline encapsulated in a 62-slide PowerPoint template the PCT managers were supposed to complete and implement. This PowerPoint template was what is described in sociology terms as a ‘boundary object’ – that is, a physical object or abstract concept that serves as a temporary or permanent bridge between intersecting social worlds.

If boundary objects are available for discussion, and can be interpreted flexibly by different groups, they may foster common understanding and collaboration. However, in this case, there was no discussion. The PowerPoint template and project timeline were developed and fixed before PCT managers’ involvement. Consultants then focused on defending it, insisting that time was too short to make changes rather than engaging in two-way dialogue to develop a common understanding of the local NHS and collaborative solutions.

So, realising that both the task and the timescale had been tacitly fixed in advance, PCT managers disengaged, formally ‘signing off’ the plan but with unarticulated grave misgivings about how it would be implemented.

Ironically, just before the project ended, the Department of Health announced a major NHS reorganisation, involving the abolition of both SHAs and PCTs and making implementation impossible. The loss of the SHA removed a strong layer of direct managerial pressure on the local NHS field. So, the local managerial and clinical field ended up surviving longer than either the consultancy project or the sponsoring SHA.

Signing off the plan satisfied the short-term interests of all three groups of stakeholders. The management consultants had been hired to produce a plan – once it had been signed off they could collect their fees and leave. The production of a plan relieved the pressure on the SHA to demonstrate that efficiency savings could be made – though these savings would be realised at an unspecified point in the future, and in fact implementation was not discussed. And PCT managers, despite believing that the plan itself was unfeasible, were quite happy to get the SHA off their backs in the short term, before sitting back and waiting for everything to unravel by itself. At that point the need for a consultative, sustainable process would legitimately re-emerge.

What this teaches us

People construct problems and their solutions in different ways according to their temporal interests and orientations. In our research, for the SHA managers and the management consultants, the project was designed to solve an ‘urgent critical problem’ requiring a short time frame. However, PCT managers and clinicians regarded it as an ‘historical wicked problem’ requiring an open time frame.

These different temporal interests and orientations may be unarticulated, silent or silenced for political reasons. It is possible that revealing them would undermine the credibility of both consultants and managers: consultants would not sell projects if they acknowledged that their recommendations reflected their own temporal orientations and interests; while middle managers cannot admit that it may be easier and less painful to deflect change implementation after projects end than to overtly challenge plans as they are being devised.

Boundary objects can be used politically, to promote individual or group interests by presenting selected information, set agendas, and structured discussions. Our study shows how the consultants’ PowerPoint template promoted their own and senior managers’ interests by imposing (rather than negotiating) predetermined task and time frames. However, it was then later covertly appropriated and subverted by the PCT managers, who were prepared to sign off the plan as an expedient short-term fix, while allowing unarticulated and unresolved issues to take their own course over the longer term.

Temporal settlements can have a positive role in enabling progress from arguing or debating meanings to implementing change. However, as our research shows, they can be provisional and therefore prone to breaking down.

Questions for leaders and further research

Overt politics and conflict tend to go hand in hand with organisational change, and embattled change leaders may grasp at the prospect of a temporal settlement with relief. However, such settlements often mask deeper disagreements and work instead to store up unintended problems for the longer term.  Leaders planning change would benefit from a close analysis and understanding of the temporal orientations of different organisational and social groups, and a greater awareness of the existence of unarticulated and covert temporal work.

In addition, while we focus on a PowerPoint template and a related timeline in our empirical case, a wider variety of boundary objects (e.g. new technologies or managerial practices, processes or strategies) are likely to be present in other cases. Further research examining how different kinds of boundary objects impose temporal orientations and related task and time frames in organisations, during projects and more generally, would be valuable.

Gerry McGivern, Sue Dopson, Ewan Ferlie, Michael D. Fischer, Louise Fitzgerald, Jean Ledger, Chris Bennett The Silent Politics of Temporal Work: A Case Study of a Management Consultancy Project to Redesign Public Health Care is published in Organisation Studies


Louise Fitzgerald View profile

Professor Louise Fitzgerald is Visiting Professor, (Organisational Change) at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford & Emeritus Professor, De Montfort University, Leicester. She has a PhD; BA (Econ.) Hons.; and Dip. in Personnel Management.