Time Span of Discretion

Half a century ago, while advising a UK Metals company, Elliott Jaques had a deep and controversial insight. He noticed that workers at different levels of the company had very different time horizons. Line workers focused on tasks that could be completed in a single shift, while managers devoted their energies to tasks requiring six months or more to complete. Meanwhile, their CEO was pursuing goals realizable only over the span of several years.

After several decades of empirical study, Jaques concluded that just as humans differ in intelligence, we differ in our ability to handle time-dependent complexity. 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. Jaques observed that organizations implicitly recognize this fact in everything from titles to salary: line workers are paid hourly, managers annually, and senior executives compensated with longer-term incentives such as stock options.

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.

Time span of discretion is about achieving intents that have explicit time frames. And in Jaques model, one can rank discretionary capacity in 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.

Jaques' ideas enjoyed currency into the 1970s and then fell into eclipse, assailed as unfair stereotyping or worse, a totalitarian stratification evocative of Huxley's Brave New World. 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. Perhaps problems like climate change are intractable because we have a political system that elects Level 2 thinkers to Congress when we really need Level 5s in office. As such, Jaques ideas might help us realize that the old saying, "he who thinks longest wins" is only half the story, and that the society in which everyone explicitly thinks about tasks in the context of time will be the most effective.