Perceptions of Time in Project Management

I recently read an article on the PMI website titled “Adjusting to Team Time Warps“. The article addresses the issue of how people view time differently when managing their projects. This would be a particularly interesting issue to look at during the planning portion of project management process, when analyzing and formulating strategies to reach a given objective. Understanding each individual’s perspective on time could help prevent future conflict. It may also help anticipate the different needs of each party involved in the project management process.

So how do people “see time”? We are able to see from a cultural prospective, how each culture interprets time differently. For example, Western Europeans are focused on the future, and believe the present is just a means of ensuring a good future. Americans are very focused on the present, seeking immediate gains or results. However, Southern Europe, Asia, and Africa focus on the past, and as a result, feel the future is uncertain. These different perspectives of time can be important to acknowledge when managing a global project. In order to ensure everyone is on the same page, the project manager may need to emphasize important time related goals or deadlines to certain people in a different way. It is also important to be cognizant and respectful of the way other cultures think and feel about time. Someone from Asia may not feel the same sense of urgency of finishing the project on time, as someone from America might

However, I believe this idea of having different perceptions of time can be applied to all projects, even if it doesn’t appear you are dealing with a variety of cultures. Someone with a present focus may be more likely to take actions leading to immediate gratification, versus making decisions toward the betterment of the long term project. A good project manager should be able to identify individuals with this mentality, and coach them toward the desired outcome. This may also help to alleviate any personality conflicts that might have occurred among the team, because of they are stuck in this “time warp”.

I currently work for an industrial supply chain. We have multiple departments who handle the same customer order on any given day. I see issues occurring in different departments as a result of conflicting perceptions of time. For example, the Returns department handles customer orders that were sent out with incorrect material or had quantity discrepancies. This department has a focus on the past. They believe we should be taking our time to ensure we are completing orders correctly, and packing the material in a way that is appealing to the customer and prevents damage to the material. Doing so would eliminate many of the problems they face on a day to day basis. This conflicts with the shipping department who have a future focus on time. Shipping believes in finishing orders and loading the trucks for delivery as fast as possible to ensure each customer gets their shipment on time. Both of these views conflict with the department in charge of picking the orders, because they are focused on getting the material off the shelves and into shipping. They are not concerned with the process before the material arrive on the shelf, or what happens after it has been picked. The order pickers have a present focus.

Has anyone ever been a part of a team where perceptions of time have impacted a project’s processes or outcomes? How did you deal with any problems that may have come up?

7 thoughts on “Perceptions of Time in Project Management

  1. The concept of time perceptions within project management is pretty interesting and true. Although I agree that it would only benefit a project team if each individual’s perception of time was known, I still feel this would be relatively difficult to do especially since most projects are already time consuming and do not have ample free time. As a previous supply chain consultant, I did encounter a difference of time perception with an Asian counterpart. Their culture is more focused on relationship building and face to face meetings, which is much different than the typical American business handling. I knew that I would need to be more patient but I also had to meet the project goals on time. By understanding his cultural tendencies, we were able to work effectively as a team to meet project timelines.

  2. These are great points. I find communicating expected deadlines clearly within project groups is super important. For one person, right away may mean this afternoon, while for another it may mean this week. Getting everyone on the same page is essentially especially when you are talking about time and deadlines. With the event planning work I have done in the past I was always sure to implement timelines and assign specific dates that certain tasks need to be completed by so everyone is on the same page.

  3. In the world that I work in (Logistics) time is key. We deal with mini projects everyday with customers wanting 10 shipments outbound on this date or 20 inbound shipments on this date. All while trying to manage normal everyday shipments and not missing them. If you take too much time to make a decision you will be late. In regards to how time has impacted a projects outcome specifically at my old position we ran bowling tournaments for the Illinois Bowling Association. We usually had set timelines that we followed for tournaments in getting scorecards, lane assignments, advertisments, etc ready. When it came to a new tournament we hadn’t done before though it was always a brand new process and we found that we spent more time on advertising and marketing the new tournament that all the sudden you are a two weeks away from the final event and you are rushing to inform bowlers that qualified to participate that they need to be there. It is just always important to keep the timeline of a project in perspective. What we found to work over the years was mapping out a timeline on a dry erase board and leaving it up with specific dates when tasks must be done, and if they weren’t we were staying late to get them done.

  4. This is a really fascinating topic, thank you for posting. In my field of web development time is critical and we are always running behind. Stakeholders want their project fast, good and cheap, which are three things that never go together. You can get fast and good, but it won’t be cheap, or vice versa. So they are concerned with the future – how a new experience can better their position.

    In contrast, our designers always want more time to create the most appealing to our customers. They are focused on the present. I believe that developers are stuck between the two time warps. We have to wait for designers to complete the comp and yet meet the needs of the stakeholder than wanted the project completed yesterday.

    It’s the project manager’s role to find balance between the two worlds and determine how to set expectations early for the stakeholders while also keeps the project moving forward. I find that it’s often a delicate balance that takes finesse to master.

  5. I found this post really interesting, I never realised perceptions of time could be different based on an individuals cultural beliefs or background. I come from a legal consulting background and although we do set deadlines for our work we generally have the idea that legal consultations should not have a set timeframe because legal advice is critical in certain situations and the advice given needs to be correct in order to protect the interests of the clients. However I do understand that different projects need to be treated differently in regards to time, some are more urgent than others. For me it depends on the nature of the project, if the project requires urgency, the project manager will have to make all members aware of this urgency and constantly follow up, and if the project has a longer deadline then it will require moderate monitoring from the project manager.

  6. I found this post really interesting specially that I can directly relate to this. Coming from a project management field of work, time is alway an issue, mostly a negative issue. A lot of projects undergo unnecessary delays because certain individuals are not abiding by the designated time allocated to each task. Therefore, the cultural perceptions regarding time really shapes a person’s standpoint in terms of how important it is to stick to timelines. I personally found myself in multiple projects where people had completely different understanding of what a deadline or certain “time-frame” meant. I wish to research further into this particular topic and better understand how this can be tackled. Thank you for your post.

  7. This is very interesting topic, especially when project team members come from different parts of the world. at the first stages of the project, when tasks are assigned, project manager has to recognize that cultures understand time differently. Hence, he has to define project timelines clearly and he should emphasize on the consequences of any delay during the project. I always hear” tomorrow phrase” to get things done but it appears tomorrow in Arab world never comes!

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