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Time Span of Discretion

Written by Tyler Wetzel on Monday, November 11, 2013

Sunset on a horizon

Photo by Horizon

Elliott Jaques was a Canadian psychoanalyst and organizational psychologist, who studied organizations and how they functioned. He was the first to study time spans and how they relate to an organization’s structure. Jaques noticed that workers at different levels within a company have very different time horizons. Front line workers focus on tasks that can be completed in a single shift, while managers devote their effort to tasks requiring six months or more to complete. Meanwhile, a CEO might be pursuing goals achievable only over the course of several years or even decades.

Methodology behind Time Spans

Jaques postulated that just as humans differ in intelligence, we differ in our ability to handle time-dependent complexity. Each person has a particular time frame in which they can perform tasks. Some people are good at day-to-day activities and some think farther out. This theory applies to both our business lives and our personal ones. He noticed a correlation between how we plan out our lives outside of work and how we work through our deadlines in business. We all have a natural time horizon we are comfortable with, what Jaques called “Time span of discretion,” or the length of the longest task an individual can successfully undertake.

Business Time Spans

In Business

He stated that organizations already recognize time spans through a variety of factors such as our salaries. For example, a line work will be paid hourly, managers annually, and senior executives compensated with longer-term incentives such as stock options. Jaques stated that as you go farther up the management hierarchy you will encounter employees who exemplify these characteristics, whether they mean to or not.

Jaques also noted that effective organizations were comprised of workers of differing time spans of discretion, each working at a level of natural comfort. If a worker’s job was beyond their natural time span of discretion, they would fail. If it was less, they would be insufficiently challenged, and thus unhappy. We cope with tasks methodically, only pursuing goals that we can foresee as attainable in our relative time span. This also goes into a separate science that is dedicated to determining whether or not an employee is responsible for a daily, weekly or long term problem and who then should be responsible for addressing that issue, but I digress. 

Time Span Levels

Time span of discretion is about achieving goals that have explicit time frames. Moreover in Jaques model, one can rank discretionary capacity with a tiered system.

  • Level 1 encompasses jobs such as sales associates or line workers handling routine tasks with a time horizon of up to three months.
  • Levels 2 to 4 encompass various managerial positions with time horizons between one to five years.
  • Level 5 crosses over to five to 10 years and is the domain of small company CEOs and large company executive vice presidents.
  • Beyond Level 5, one enters the realm of statesmen and legendary business leaders comfortable with innate time horizons of 20 years (Level 6), 50 years (Level 7) or beyond.
  • Level 8 is the realm of 100 year thinkers like Henry Ford, while Level 9 is the domain of the Einsteins, Gandhis, and Galileos, individuals capable of setting grand tasks into motion that continue centuries into the future.

Determine your Time Span

If you’re interested in finding your own time horizon then try to keep a journal for a month. Each time you plan a vacation, outing or date take a second to think how far out you’re planning. If you are doing things on the fly or on an impulse then you might be a daily or weekly worker. If you take a few weeks to a month to plan out then you fit a level one to two manager position. Anyone who plans out farther then that would fall into the 3rd level manager position. They would be concerned with long term goals such as college or an eventual move. Write down your daily activities, and find out how you manage your time.


Then and Now

At the time Jaques was condemned for ideas. Many claimed he was in support of a totalitarian state and stereotyping. Decades later we can see the significance of his ideas. Perhaps it is now time to reexamine Jaques theories and revive time span of discretion as a tool for understanding our social structures and matching them to the overwhelming challenges facing global society. Maybe we shouldn’t be putting Level 2 thinkers in our government and congress when they should be Level 5 thinkers. Why wouldn’t we put our most capable people in positions where time is of the essence and perhaps problems like Global Warming wouldn’t be such a daunting task if we had long term goals to solve it. It’s time to take his studies to heart and become more efficient thinkers.

Read next: Whose Fault is it Anyhow?

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