Temporal Orientations: Time Matters in Planning

“Planning advocates provide little assistance to the administrator in meeting these challenges. Vague statements about planned change, elaborate schematic drawings of the planning function, diverse planning models, and five-year plans that are in fact “shelf-documents” created for evaluation agencies or for year-end reports offer minimal assistance to top-level managers as they respond to internal and external governance systems”

Yawn. Another writer criticizing strategic planning. Boring right? Except the above quote is from an article published in 1983, 28 years ago. Unfortunately, very little has changed in those 28 years. We still struggle with strategic planning, but perhaps part of that struggle is to do with our perspective on time itself.

Ringle & Savickas (1983) argued that a leader’s temporal perspective is crucial to his/her ability to create change and to strategically plan. An organization or leader is typically focused on either the past, the present, or the future, and each focus brings along strengths and weaknesses to the leader’s style and subsequently, to the organization itself.

A leader firmly anchored only in the past temporal perspective will enact a highly rigid leadership style. The institution becomes a “projectile from the past” (love that phrase!) and the leaders’s modus operandi is to protect the original trajectory.

A leader anchored only in the present temporal perspective will focus only on dealing with the latest crisis . The organization “skids” along a visionless and rudderless path and the passions of the present override the past or future from shaping current action.

A leader anchored only in the future temporal perspective will become so focused on building the future that he/she will miss out on present opportunities and will violate past traditions. Stability is sacrificed in lieu of a dreamy future.

Effective leaders must remember the past, experience the present, and anticipate the future…all simultaneously. This “temporal perspective” is an art form; I am not sure any technique can drill this into a leader. Different situations require differing temporal orientations, and that must be acknowledged for the leader to be productive. In extreme cases, the leader must step aside or be removed because of this inability to shift his/her time orientation to what the organization requires.

Perhaps we should revisit Ringle & Savickas’ theory and understand that our plans must be temporally focused in all 3 perspectives. If we can do that effectively, I hope that in 2039 (28 years from now), the quote above will not apply to our organizations anymore.

Ringle, P.M. & Savickas, M.L. (1983, Nov-Dec). Administrative leadership: Planning and time perspective. The journal of higher education, 54(6), 649-661.