UPFRONT It’s all in the timing

“If Saddam Hussein had understood the importance of timing strategy, he would have won the first Persian Gulf war.”
To arrive at this conclusion, associate professor Stuart Albert of the University of Minnesota analysed the timing of decisions in the war, drawing on his work with companies on timing issues, such as when the market is right for product launch.
Be it in the boardroom or on the battlefield, he says, all his research shows that timing is everything in decision-making, and he’s now writing book on the topic.
“You might say that the study of timing is late,” says Albert, who’s visiting Waikato Management School. “Currently we’ve got no commonly accepted tools for figuring out the right moment to act, how quickly to act, and the right order to do things in.”
By looking at 1300 examples of timing mistakes based on what the main actors could have known or analysed at the time, Albert has come up with an approach for analysing timing issues.
“Take for example whistleblowing,” he says. “This is usually seen as question of ethics, and there are all kinds of reasons why people don’t speak out – feelings of powerlessness, fears for their jobs, being unsure of the facts. But perhaps they just couldn’t find the right window of opportunity to say no.”
Albert has used fictitious scenario of major pharmaceutical company wanting to release new drug onto the market despite evidence that it might have serious side effects. It’s in the form of board meeting involving the CEO, and the heads of marketing, research, finance and the company’s lawyer.
“So far no-one in my lectures has ever been able to come up with the right speech at the right time in that meeting that would stop the company from releasing the drug and potentially opening itself up to crippling lawsuits,” says Albert.
“Yet through timing analysis of that meeting, I can show that there are effective ways to raise dissent. It’s just matter of knowing when.”
Albert has identified series of timing rules for such cases, and suggests ways to circumvent those rules in order to raise dissent. One way round the timing rules is to rescale the discussion. “Any given moment is simultaneously the end of the past and the beginning of the future. If you’re able to rescale decision in terms of how it will appear in, say, five years’ time, then it no longer looms so large in the present.”
He also suggests consciously reframing the issue in question in terms of big step to highlight its impact and avoid the danger of what he calls “the continuous scale” where time appears to stretch away indefinitely until suddenly it’s too late.
Appealing to commonly held values, taking on the role of the “good corporate citizen”, and playing devil’s advocate are good ways to avoid being labelled obstructionist. And he advises that if you leave raising your point until the end of the meeting, then you should always assume the burden of follow-up.
But Albert notes that we still don’t understand why people are unable to do timing analysis in real time. “The next step,” he says, “is to find out what we’d need to gain that skill.”

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