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Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock—Stop
by Rod Johnson

For a second, visualize yourself onstage in the final round of “Jeopardy.” In front of you is an old Illinois size 18 pocket watch--you know the kind that hung from a chain and was kept in your grandpa’s watch pocket. Alex Trebek submits his last question to the panel, “What question was this device designed to answer?” A brief pause of silence occurs before the tick tock music begins. You think for a second or two…after all, the answer is so obvious. You realize that something so obvious is rarely the answer. Despite your uncertainty, nothing else comes to mind. Hesitantly, you write on the card in front of you, “What is time?”

The music ends and the panel in front of you lights up with your answer. Trebek reads it out loud. “What is time?” He looks you in the eye and says, “I’m sorry . . . it’s the obvious answer, just not the right one.” The two other contestants not surprisingly have the same answer.

Trebek then states, “The answer I was looking for was, “Where am I?”

And now for the rest of the story

The accurate portable timepiece referred to as a watch was initially developed as a navigational aid. It was used to help calculate longitude. Prior to the invention of the chronometer, it took upwards of three hours of manual calculations to determine longitude. Given how far a ship could travel in three hours and the consequences of error, it is not surprising that some other mechanism was needed. With the introduction of the chronometer, calculations were reduced to simple arithmetic and could be done in minutes.

Today, time is possibly the most scorned and abused element in our lives. It is also grossly misunderstood. At least most perceive time to be constant. There are 24 hours in a day, 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute and so on.

For many, there simply is not enough of it. As a means to harvesting our time calendar, we might utilize a system known as “time management,” the art focused on increasing the effectiveness of personal planning and self management (a.k.a., always use your time wisely because you cannot afford to waste it).

But living a life of “time management” can lead us astray since it is based around the concept that “time is constant.” From a purely scientific perspective, this is correct. Computers know time. Processing equipment knows time. The time clock knows time.

From a personal level, however, this may not be the case. Speak to anyone who has lived through a traumatic experience and they will reflect on how time stood still. Seconds seemed like minutes and possibly hours. Days seemed like weeks. In fact, I propose that time can actually stand still, which leads us back to the correct answer a second time, “Where am I?”

Rod Serling’s TV series, “The Twilight Zone,” often explored the issue of time. It was always very different than our perception of it because “What time is it?” and “Where am I?” were always on different spatial plains. It revealed how time could be elastic. It could slow down and speed up at random.

In Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, the first chapter postulates that time moves in relation to the amount of chaos in the system. When there is a lot of chaos, time slows. When there is a high degree of order, time accelerates. My experience supports this premise. I propose that in every organization, time varies greatly. Every person may work an eight-hour day; what is accomplished is determined by the amount of chaos present. Organizations that

• lack a clear vision tend to have more inherent chaos
• are led by a weak leader have more inherent chaos
• lack trust have more inherent chaos
• possess weak internal processes and procedures have more inherent chaos

Inherent chaos in an organization is a determinant in the effectiveness of the organization and ultimately the concept of “time.” Organizations must empower time by providing great leadership, clear roles and responsibility, a concise vision and a high degree of trust. Organizations with this favored DNA will thrive in good times and bad. Organizations that lack these traits will find it increasingly difficult to survive and will experience a life of chaos.

As I work with CEOs, the issue of time always presents itself. At first glance, it seems simplistic, but time is actually complex in scope. So let me ask you again, “Where are you?” Are you lost, confused or anxious? Or do you truly know where you are and where you’re going? Will your organization hold the same answer?

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