Hi. Welcome to Little Futures. This is an experiment from Brian and Tom to curate, collect and shine a light on near-term futures, what we call “arm’s length futures.” We’ve both worked in business, strategy, startups, creative and consulting and are interested in exploring the notion of change, org design, research and strategy in a modern, networked corporation.
Each week we’ll collect some things around a theme we’re interested in. This week, business time…
“The thick ticking of the tin clock stopped” - Bernard Malamud
Despite what you might think there are very few objective measures of time - instead mostly we live in narrative time. We measure time not by clock ticks but by the cadence of emotional moments.
This is true everywhere but definitely true in business. Business time is not linear at all - it’s narrative time nested in narrative time.
The phrase “narrative time” is stolen from the excellent book Tempo by Venkatesh Rao:
Narrative rationality deals with decisions against the backdrop of an appropriate narrative time, measured by an appropriate narrative clock. As Lenin once remarked, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
A founding principle for Little Futures is the belief that most business strategy mis-understands this notion of time, confusing a strict linear time cadence (e.g. “quarterly OKRs”) for narrative time (“how fast are we moving and to what end?”).
If you could give everyone in your company a wrist-watch that tells the time what time would you set it at? Not linear time surely, we already have that in abundance. But perhaps a sense of urgent, early, recency, frequency. You could say to the company “it’s getting late” and everyone would know what that means - time to shift gears a little and start biasing output over research.
This sense of narrative time isn’t just about “now” though - histories and futures are written narratively not quantitatively in business.
What time is it in your business? What are the markers of narrative time?
For business leaders - how can you use the texture of narrative time to shift the tempo of the organization?
For employees - how can you get a better awareness of narrative time within the organization? How do the executive teams keep track of time?
For gig workers - how do you recognize and insert yourself into the narrative time structures of your clients? When does it make sense to work on their time narrative time and when does it make sense to work on your own?
And for anyone working on “futures” maybe it’s about time to stop thinking in terms of linear time futures (1, 3, 5 years out) but rather in terms of narrative time futures…
Maybe… it’s time for Little Futures.
This week’s links are all about business time. Enjoy.
01 - Pace Layers & Power
Onwards by Clay Parker Jones
Clay Parker Jones ruminates on leaving the org design consultancy he founded to head to RGA. In particular he muses on the time horizon and impact of org design:
Another way of thinking about this is in terms of the pace layers describing how organizations learn. At Undercurrent, we frequently played at the Annual Operating Plan layer, and occasionally at the Functional Advantage layer. At August, we were mostly in Role Management and Training. Consulting at that layer requires significant (maybe even software-driven) scale, because fees can’t ever be that high – the leverage is too low.
And he drops in this lovely pace layers image to demonstrate the interplay of speed and power inside business:
02 - Week Notes Peg Narrative Time to Linear Time
A pre-history of week notes by Matt Webb
I have a physics background and enjoyed enormously my time in the lab. You can’t tell, in the middle of an experiment, what will be important. So write down the millilitres of whatnot and the pitch of the diffraction grating and the hypothesis you’re chasing down, but also whether you’ve shaved because there might be crystal seeds in your beard and what the weather is. You don’t know what is important until you’ve had a chance to look back and reflect.
Week Notes are a crossing of the streams between narrative time and clock time - they help you connect the dots between what happened and what you were feeling.
They’re also a wonderful way to create a network around what you’re working on. We love week notes here at Little Futures.
03 - The Banality of Time Tracking & Productivity
Not relevant for fantasy purposes - Rob Horning in Real Life Mag
A wonderful meditation on time tracking and how empty the idea of “productivity” is in the first place:
Gregg argues that “the labor of time management is a recursive distraction that has postponed the need to identify a worthwhile basis for work as a source of spiritual fulfillment.” Instead, there is a sense that saving time is an end in itself. You don’t need any good ideas about what to spend it on. This unfolds the possibility of a fully gamified life, unfettered by actual games, rules, standings, actual victories — just statistical simulations of wins pegged to tautological efficiency measures that serve no perceptible purpose. As Gregg writes, “personal productivity is an epistemology without an ontology, a framework for knowing what to do in the absence of a guiding principle for doing it.” It’s a treadmill masquerading as a set of goals.
Since the pursuit of personal productivity requires the surrender of larger goals — the continual amassing of statistical data rather than actual wins — it depends on subjects being capable of emptying themselves of purpose, a kind of crypto-Buddhist pose of indifference to ends in favor of means.
04 - Thinking Fast & Slow
Two links that work at the opposite ends of the spectrum:
Thinklong by Gareth Price
In which Gareth argues that brands can operate better by thinking on longer time horizons:
the average holding time for shares on the world’s largest stock exchange falling from eight years in 1960 to less than eight months today.
Short-termism is a problem that must first be confronted at the executive level to ensure marketers are in a position to make decisions that prioritise effectiveness over efficiency. This requires us to pursue the more ambitious goal of encouraging investors to hold shares for longer. Above all else, this will ensure boards invest in long-term strategies.
But at the other end of the spectrum, the speed of the feed can be a thing to lean into:
Careful. Once you step into the feed you might come back out changed…
That’s all for this week. This was the first Little Futures experiment so things might evolve as we go.
Brian & Tom
Artwork: Watch repairman, Waco, Texas - 1939