Through Time and Space

The most valuable communication advice I have ever been given and still heed to this day goes something like this: if you can’t explain difficult concepts in simple terms, neither you nor your audience can understand them.

A quick Google search confirms that this was not an original tip – free ones rarely are. Public relations specialists, business leaders, moral philosophers, and physicists have all been preaching the importance of translating complex ideas into understandable and accessible language for many years. But understanding the need to abandon our innate complexity bias and actually doing so are not just opposite sides of the same coin. They are different coins altogether.

I learned this the hard way, when over the course of this most unprecedented of summers, I tried to breathe some life and clarity into a concept that has not only gripped my attention but exerted an ironclad stranglehold over it: thinking in time.

The concept of “thinking in time” is borrowed from the work of the same name by historians Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, who made a powerful case for the professional use of hindsight “to stimulate imagination” during policy- and decision-making processes. For me, thinking in time, or temporal thinking, holds allure because it transcends the traditional boundaries of academic history and management thinking alike.

Here is a very relatable situation that everyone has encountered at some point in their professional careers or personal lives. I’d wager some of us even experienced it this very week:

You are sitting in front of your computer and suddenly an email arrives in your inbox. Against your better judgment you stop your current task to get that pesky unread email off your plate as soon as possible. You open it, start reading, and after only a few words in, red-hot anger begins building inside: you are the recipient of a rude email.

Damage done.

It is the next step that defines what kind of person or co-worker you are. Should you give in to temptation and respond in kind, and possibly escalate the situation? We all have done it and regretted it afterwards.

The wiser move is to give the situation “time and space,” as the title of this article suggests. Removing yourself physically and mentally from the object of your ire almost always results in a more carefully calibrated and well thought out response upon your return. With your prefrontal cortex back in charge, you're able to regulate your emotions and process information in a rational manner.

But there is another reason why this strategy works. By stepping back from the problem at hand, you are able to cast forward in time and weigh the likely consequences of your actions (future) in the context of the event that precipitated the email and the relationships involved (past) and the reactions it has now provoked (present).

This is temporal thinking, and it can help leaders faced with much graver challenges than an unwelcome e-mail, whether it is guiding a nation's post-pandemic recovery or future-proofing an organization against predictable or unpredictable bouts of uncertainty. "Time and space" can not only help decision-makers transcend their own experience and relate with compassion and awareness to their constituents and environments. It can also reveal the origins of the challenge at hand and the likely implications of the decisions they take to address it.

Of course, unless the leader or those they rely on for advice are already trained in the art of temporal thinking – and very few of them are – they would benefit from having a guided tour through time and space.

Saybrook Partners has yet to crack the formula for actual time travel, but we do offer a range of strategy services that help leaders understand the problem at hand in its fullest dimension, enabling them to respond with agility, grace, and good judgment. And when the pressures of the moment have passed, we can then disseminate the same problem-solving techniques beyond the C-Suite, allowing temporal thinking to become ingrained – and codified – in culture and operational processes.

Because in this year of crises, taking the long view might be just what we need.