The Perception Of Time

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    An interesting development has been taking place in my international projects, regarding the allocation of time. Many of us in the business of implementing projects have heard of that very useful device, the “triple constraint”, right? Simply put, it is a framework to help us balance the competing demands of the project by having customers and performers agree on the Scope, Time and Cost components. It is good guidance in our efforts to organize and subsequently deploy the project work, and can be used iteratively at many points in the project lifecycle.

    Once the scope and durations for activities have been agreed, I notice that colleagues from some countries will work linearly, sticking closely to an order of events and to a critical path, while colleagues from other countries will work on two or three activities at the same time. This latter approach makes progress reporting a bit trickier, as parts of the project will start before their immediate predecessor has been completely finished. It also means that more of my tasks remain open at 75%, or 90%, taking longer to reach the full 100% completion.

    This reminds me of buying cheese in Europe. At the cheese shop in Germany, little numbers were issued on entering the shop, and customers were served in the order of these numbers. As many cheeses as the customer wanted would get duly taken out of the refrigerator, unwrapped, sliced, and wrapped again once the customer got to the front of the line.

    In Spain, while customers did queue, when the one at the front asked for a pound of Gruyere, the shopkeeper would shout: “Anybody else need some Gruyere?” He might then serve two customers at a time: the one at the front of the queue and another one from the middle of the line. I cannot imagine being successful in the German cheese shop if, from the back of the queue, I were to shout: “Hey, can you slice me a pound of the Gouda while it is out?” I am sure customers and staff would have been horrified at the mere suggestion.

    The perception of time and how to fill it vary greatly by culture. Some countries value planning and organized execution tremendously. In some other countries, staying flexible, re-prioritizing at the last minute, and working on two things at once seems like a better system (By the way, I do think the Spanish shopkeeper sold cheese to more customers by the end of the day).

    In our international projects then, what type of project manager will we be? The one that demands work be done in the exact order we have specified? Or a flexible one that allows for the different perceptions of time that different cultures bring, as long as the work gets done…. and all the customers get their cheese?