Managing the Time Line - Project Management Review, July 2001
In classic project management theory there are only three controlling factors in a project; time, cost and quality. This article focuses on the time element of this triad and examines how we perceive and internalise time. It also provides techniques to allow us to use this highly scarce resource more effectively.
Time Line Theory was developed as a branch of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP was established in the USA in the early part of the 1970's by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. It was developed as a study of subjective experience, and used as a tool for deconstructing and modelling expertise. NLP is based on the principle that because of the way in which individuals filter and distort the information their senses receive, everyone's view of the world is different. We all effectively create our own "map" of the world, and NLP is concerned with identifying how these maps affect the way we operate.
Time Line Theory was developed and refined by Tad James and Wyatt Woodsmall based on work inspired by Richard Bandler. Their purpose in developing this area was to identify how an individual's Time Line could be utilised to facilitate personal growth and therapeutic development. My purpose is to take their work and show how it can be used in a day-to-day manner within Project Management.
What is a Time Line?
Our minds are made up of a vast collection of thoughts, ideas and memories. To help us understand and make sense of these our brain codifies all of this information. For example if you think about washing the car last week and then think about washing the car next week, you have no difficulty in differentiating the past event from the future one. Yet in reality the two images are in fact just thoughts within your mind, so there must be some system by which your brain differentiates between the past and the future.
It was these differences that interested James and Woodsmall. After investigation they discovered that the most striking difference, and the one which allowed the mind to keep track of what was happening, was the location of the pictures. It was through identifying the relationship of these different locations that the concept of a personal Time Line was developed.
Before reading any further please take a moment to perform a short experiment. Sit back, relax and think about something that you do every day, for example cleaning your teeth. Remember cleaning your teeth 6 months ago, remembering cleaning your teeth 1 month ago, then 1 week ago and then yesterday. Holding all of those memories simultaneously for a moment point towards what direction represents the past for you.
Now think about cleaning your teeth tomorrow, next week, next month and in 6 months time. Again holding all of those thoughts simultaneously for a moment point towards what direction represents the future for you. Now consider the present and imagine a line joining those three points, past, present and future. This is your Time Line.
Generally people fall into one of two categories, Through-time or In-time. A Through-time person always has their time line fully visible to them, it may for example go left to right, or up and down, but whatever the shape it is always visible. An In-time person has their time line arranged in such a way that it's never totally in view, it may go back to front through them, or sloping front to back.
Depending upon which Time Line orientation people follow there is a tendency for them to share certain personal characteristics.
Very aware of duration and how the past interacts with the future.
Work well in ambiguous situations.
Tend to disassociate from events, leading to a sense of coldness.
Poor planners and timekeepers.
Using the Time Line
Once you know how you personally organise time there are a number of ways in which you can utilise this information. This article will explore two of these :
- Shifting the Time Line
- Goal setting on the Time Line
First consider the question, which is better for a Project Manager Through-time or In-time orientation? Well certainly from a planning and tracking perspective Through-time is extremely useful, however in terms building relationships with the team and focusing on work at hand In-time has it's uses too. The answer is that to be an effective Project Manager you need to be able to utilise skills associated with both orientations. To facilitate this it is possible to consciously shift the orientation of your Time Line (in fact in many cases highly effective Project Managers do this automatically).
The process for this is very simple, firstly visualise your Time Line as it currently stands. Now take the ends of your Time Line and gently move them to the alternate orientation. So if you are normally In-time, move the ends so that you can see the whole of the Time Line in front of you. For Through-time people swing the past so that is behind you, and sense the feeling of having the Time Line run right through you.
It's possible that the first time you do this it may feel unaccountable uncomfortable, that's perfectly normal. Reassure yourself that this is just an experiment, and after letting the line sit in the new position for a few seconds more it back to the original orientation. Then repeat the whole process again. The more often you perform this the more comfortable it will feel. Then the next time you are planning you can ensure that you are in Through-time mode, and if you want your attention in the here-and-now you can put yourself into In-time mode.
The second way you can utilise you Time Line is for goal setting. By directly placing goals into the part of your Time Line that represents the future for you it increases the possibility of achieving those goals. As an example select a goal you would like to achieve and think of a specific event that would represent the successful completion of that goal. Then follow the process below.
- Sit back, relax, close your eyes and visualise your Time Line.
- Imagine yourself floating upwards so that you are now looking down on your Time Line.
- Move slowly along your Time Line to the place that represents the point at which the event needs to take place.
- Create a picture in front of you of the event just as if things had been a complete and utter success. See how you would be at that point.
- Now step into the picture and see it as if you were looking through your own eyes, experiencing the event now. Seeing what you'd see, hearing what you'd hear, feeling what you'd feel. Take a moment to fully enjoy the sense of success.
- Now pull back and once more see things as if you were watching yourself on television. Adjust the scene so that the colours are bright and sparkling; do whatever you need to do to make the picture totally compelling for you.
- Gently release the picture and let it drop down into your Time Line at just the point at which it needs to take place.
- Slowly float back along your Time Line, only so quickly as your Time Line can adjust itself to account for the event that has now been added. (It may resemble something like a series of dominos being toppled, each event affecting the next.)
- Once you reach the point on your Time Line that is "now", float down into the Time Line and open your eyes.
Placing this "wanted" event into a location where your mind holds "expected" events will increase your natural inclination to achieve the goal.
Knowing how you organise time internally can provide insight into your own personal strengths and weaknesses as a Project Manager. It can also supply you with the tools to enhance your own performance.
Remember, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got". The only way to know how effective these techniques could be for you is to use them. So now it's time for you to take over.
For more information on Time Lines please see "Time Line Therapy and the Basis of Personality" by Tad James and Wyatt Woodsmall.