One of the most damaging corporate pathologies is the obsession with short term performance at the expense of longer term sustainability. A pervasive symptom of this pathology is the daily game of “Name That Deadline.” Your manager asks, when can I have your report or when will that project be done? You give a date with an added buffer because you have learned that this is actually a positional bargaining exercise, not a real question based on facts. Managers, who are playing the same game with their own managers, push back with deadlines that they know are not really feasible but believe will be motivational. All too often, the results are:
1. Nothing actually gets done on time because the negotiated deadlines aren’t based on reality.
2. Everyone gets more stressed as this manufactured urgency spreads across the company.
3. People get worse at estimating how long tasks will actually take which makes planning difficult.
There must be a reason they call these deadlines and not lifelines. If you want to move away from this “Name That Deadline” game, you need to start by developing a long view. Once you have your own long view, you may be able to influence others. How do you develop a long view?
1. Examine What You Take for Granted. A 90 year-old grandmother is sitting in her granddaughter’s kitchen marveling at the complexity of the dinner preparations. She says to her granddaughter, “Tell me, if you could have only one of these modern conveniences you have here in your kitchen, which one would it be?” Her granddaughter takes her time in answering and tries to evaluate all the pros and cons as she moves around the kitchen noting the stove, the dishwasher, blender, etc. and thinking how she could do without them. Pleased with her careful analysis, finally, she says, “I think I would have to choose the fridge.” “Interesting,” her grandmother says, “I think I would choose running water every time.”
Part of what gets us stuck in short term thinking is that we tend to rely on a narrow understanding of our universe that is rooted in our own time and space. We tend to take for granted things that are outside our own immediate time horizon and we lose the vantage point of the past that could give us a longer view.
We also take for granted that our own space is all there is. A large portion of the current global population still does not have the modern convenience of “running water” in the way this grandmother meant it. A long view takes fewer things for granted and goes beyond our own time and space. What do you take for granted?
2. Examine What Endures. At a recent visit to the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the National Arboretum here in Washington, we were greeted at the entrance by a tree that has been “in training” since 1626. To put that in perspective for myself, someone started tending and shaping this miniature tree about the time the ancestor for whom I am named arrived in a “new world” at age 13 on the Mayflower about 400 years ago. In my case that’s a span of 10 generations.
So somewhere in Asia in 1626, someone began a process of training the tree that has continued over about 10 generations and four centuries. Why has it endured? Is it some combination of beauty, commitment, portability, and discipline? Or was it the capacity of the person who began the process to take a long view? If you want to discover the long view, take the risk of planting a few things in your life that may not see their fulfillment until after you are gone from where you are now (gone from a place, a job, or this life).
Once you discover the long view, you will find that negotiating deadlines will become less aggravating and less important. As you extend lifelines into the past and into the future and across all kinds of boundaries in the present, you will gain more perspective, a sense of comfortable connectedness, a steady rhythm of productivity, and quite possibly, a little peace.