The Biggest Problem in Business (and what to do about it): The Time Flow Problem

I was recently asked whether there are any patterns to the problems that my clients face, over and above the ones that are specifically in my wheelhouse. There are actually several, but the biggest one is what I call the time flow problem: the conflict of “we don’t have time to X” and “we don’t have time not to X.”

Years ago, I was working on a project where I was writing code in an unfamiliar programming language, and thus struggling with it a bit, and my boss suggested a few workarounds that would get the project done. I agreed that his suggestions would get the project done, but would make our code so inflexible that any changes would take hours to make. My boss, who had no programming background save for some forays into that particular coding language, insisted that we just need to “get it done” and I should use the workarounds he suggested instead of spending so much time following standard coding protocols (those with a computer science background would cringe if they knew what he wanted me to do). Not in a position to argue, I gave my boss what he asked for, and then had to spend many, many, many more hours fixing the code when changes I anticipated actually materialized. Sure, it would have taken me twice as long to code properly, but it ended up taking about four times as long because of all of the fixes, which yielded a major time loss for the company. Since my boss felt that I didn’t have the time to do it right the first time, I ended up having to spend a ton of extra time fixing on the back end.

I see this sort of conflict in almost every company. Almost every aspect of good hiring, for instance, is ignored because companies feel that they don’t have the time to do proper recruitment, interviewing, and decision-making. Diversity, too, is much easier when companies take the time to seek out top-notch human capital, nurture it, and develop it. Creative solutions, building an innovation portfolio, enhancing employee engagement, and so many other value-producing endeavors, are eminently doable if firms would take the time to set them up properly instead of backfilling and putting out fires.

Of course, most companies will tell you straight up that they don’t have the time to do those things, and in many cases they are correct. What makes it worse is that they all know they are going to pay more for these haphazard maneuvers later, and that’s only if new fires don’t pop up.

There actually is a silver bullet for this, but it’s hard to find, it costs a lot, and it’s hard to load, but it’s this: think long-term.

It means making a bunch of sacrifices and paying significant costs in the short-term, and understanding that these are not costs or cuts, but rather investments in the long-term. When the limiting factor is financial capital, we call it a cash flow problem, so when the limiting factor is time, it’s a time flow problem. Much like a cash flow problem, a lot of the trick to solving the time flow problem is finding people who can invest time, energy, and/or the money to pay for time and energy into your company at reasonable interest rates or costs. (It’s also worth taking a moment to think about why your employees are called human capital.)

In order to rebuild your temporal capital and start being proactive in your business, here are some important steps to take.

1) Frontload, frontload, frontload

For every task that you and your employees need to do, plan it out. Create a timeline, consider stakeholders, muster resources, define the scope of the task(s), make sure everyone knows what (s)he needs to do, et cetera. Spend time on Q&A in the beginning, and make sure that you cover as many foreseeable aspects of the project as possible (premortems help). For instance, if you are going to hire, make sure to write a good job description, clarify what kind of person you want to hire, and only then do you sort through the pile of resumes and conduct interviews.

2) Prioritize

This is a tough one, especially because most businesses have more fires raging than anyone could humanly put out (if not, kudos, and you probably don’t have a time flow problem). It helps just to take a moment to realize that you are definitely going to burn, and to decide exactly which burns you’re going to get (might as well, right?). The most difficult part of this task is accepting that you just can’t do everything, because you likely see yourself as an incredibly competent, resilient, powerful person. And, you’re correct! But, even the most superhuman people have limits, including you, and that means you’re not going to be able to get all of those fires out before they cause damage. Pick your poison, and start dousing the rest.

3) Hire more people and pay them properly

I tell both my business school students and my clients that companies should always be hiring, and always hire ahead of their needs. Think about it: by the time you’ve figured out that you need to hire someone new, you usually have so much on your plate that things are falling through the cracks. It might actually cost you less in the long run to have employees that take longer lunch breaks because they don’t quite have full plates than it might for you to drop some balls. And, of course, make sure you pay a proper wage for your talent, because otherwise you are inviting an expensive turnover problem.

On a totally different note, how many of your tasks could be delegated to one of your subordinates? How about to an assistant (or maybe a virtual one)? Do you really need to spend your expensive time stapling receipts together and entering them into a spreadsheet? It might be a great investment in your time, health, and energy to get an assistant for your team who can take care of things. Interns, too, are a great investment (make sure you pay them!), as they can take a lot off your plate in exchange for experience, education, and reasonable pay.

4) Change your policies

Policy exists because someone was a moron. You probably lose a ton of time doing (or paying someone else to do) little admin tasks that you probably don’t even need to do but for company policy. Rethink the bureaucracy, and consider exchanging it for something useful, like trust. Trust is really expensive, in part because of its higher risk, but the expected value of good, established trust is positive in the long run even when there are a few people that burn you.

If you have a time flow problem, and can’t get some investments, then you will need to cut your temporal losses. Unfortunately, that means accepting the consequences of a few burns, a few dropped balls, and/or cancelled projects, as the costs of reorganizing your temporal investments so that you can get more done with the capital you have available. Granted, this is hard to do, both because it means accepting limitations and because you run the risk of a less-diversified project portfolio. And yet, thinking long-term and controlling your time flow are among the most important business decisions you can make, because they can make your work life far less stressful and your efforts more productive. After all, when you are spending the time of your life doing business, you might as well get the most life for your buck.

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Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.