Get your timing right, writes Camelia Ram
You’ve followed all the rules of the game. You’ve set clear objectives and measures of success. You’ve examined multiple future scenarios and the risks they represent. You’ve engaged and aligned stakeholders on the way forward. You have implemented agreed actions over a defined period of time. Yet they have not had the desired impact. You conduct a postmortem on the choices, and it appears that your timing was off: there were unforeseeable circumstances that impacted success. This situation is all too common in business. The reality is that the best attempts to plan for change can falter in uncertain and volatile environments. This is because we cannot always predict the precise nature and timing of change in such environments. Therefore timing decisions right requires a flexible approach…
In a study involving the relationship between decisions and time, it was found that what improves a decision is not the length of time devoted to making it, but the quantity and quality of the evidence accumulated during the run-up. Decisions made in short order with lots of supporting evidence are more likely to win support and succeed than decisions made over longer periods with less evidence. Commitment to action takes place as soon as there is a satisfactory level of evidence for a choice. Indeed, increasing the time given over to making a decision can be counterproductive. In the UK, the government has repeatedly delayed the key decision over where to build a new runway. The general perception is not that this is a responsible government taking due time to decide on a key plank of its economic development strategy, but instead one that is vacillating – and failing to face up to its responsibilities. When we allocate more time to making a decision, the brain interprets the outcome as being a less confident choice.
As a result, it is better to frame our choices using a compelling rationale. That way our brain focuses less on timing, and more on perception of the evidence at hand. Elite athletes undergo psychological training as a core part of their preparation. They learn how to interpret what is happening to them and why, so they can make decisions based on relevant cues. As a result, their high performance is a combination of physical and mental preparation, which ensures that they have a well-rehearsed story of what their body can cope with as circumstances change, allowing them to adjust performance in a timely manner during competition.
Want to time your strategy right under uncertain circumstances? Progress and preparation are your watchwords. In terms of progress, one should ask: what is the smallest amount of progress that will be useful and viable to the essential task we are trying to get done? In terms of preparation, the critical questions are: what is the smallest amount we could do right now to drive successful outcomes? What is standing in the way of getting things done? What obstacles, if removed, would make the majority of others disappear? The soft launch trend in the food industry embodies this concept well. Restaurants typically offer discounts on food for a defined period to showcase what they are good at; understand market reaction; and give themselves time to get things right. Similarly, comedy previews help comedians test audience reaction to jokes, then refine the order and
nature of their delivery in advance of important shows.
The well-known planning fallacy refers to people’s tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task, even when they have done the task before. This can have a severe impact on preparation for and execution of a task, as the race to the South Pole highlighted. Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott were tasked with the same goal, but their approach to preparation differed vastly. Robert Falcon Scott did the bare minimum, whereas Amundsen diligently prepared for a variety of setbacks. This meant that he stored more food with appropriate levels of B and C vitamins, planted multiple markers along the path, and had a transportation plan that was less dependent on manpower. When returning from the Pole, Scott lost five men from his 65-strong team – including himself. Amundsen’s entire team of 19 returned to Norway safely.
These choices can be difficult in time and cost-constrained business environments that are focused on short-term performance. For organizations that struggle to implement these practices, a diligent approach to focusing on elements that are within one’s control is critical. This means working with others to challenge assumptions about the timeframe within which outcomes can be expected, and the possible barriers and risks to meeting those outcomes.
The second consideration for organizations struggling to implement these practices is adopting a mindset that embraces continuous learning and experimentation. After-action team reviews are a meaningful way to reflect on performance and recalibrate responses.
Finally, the cost versus benefit of maintaining the status quo versus some reallocation of resources to build in flexibility must be put on the table when decisions are being made. This will ensure that the debate on timing and nature of options is deliberately considered.
— Camelia Ram holds a PhD in operational research from the London School of Economics