It’s about Time…and Action
All our work activities can be broken down into smaller and smaller units of time and action.
Consider three colleagues that schedule a one-hour meeting to talk about a project. That one-hour actually unfolds through a series of smaller segments of time and behaviors.
For example, the three team members could break that meeting into four, 15-minute segments – each for a different purpose. Or they could reduce it to even smaller segments. Even though they may refer to it as a “one-hour meeting,” the meeting itself is happening in much smaller segments of time. These segments then all add up to the one hour. We can zoom in and out of segments looking at larger or smaller amounts of time. And we can perform a similar zooming with regard to the behaviors that occurred during the same meeting.
After the meeting, the three colleagues could divide their “meeting behaviors” into more global or more specific descriptions. For example, after the meeting, one member might relay to an outsider that the meeting was overall “productive.” This would be a more global description. But in another conversation, she might describe the unruly behavior of one of her colleague’s that occurred about halfway through. This would be a more specific description. Can both be accurate? Of course. The meeting can be both productive (at one time scale) and include the colleague’s unruly behavior (at another time scale). Why is this?
Time and Action Aren’t Fixed
We have flexible conceptions of time and behavior and how they interact. This means we alternate between different views of time and associated behaviors. For example, you could view one particular day, and the behaviors of that day, as a single unit or a series of segments.
Imagine now a family member asking you how your day went. The answer you return could consist of a single word or hundreds of words. The number of words chosen would, in part, depend on whether you viewed the day in a more global or specific manner. In other words, your view would determine your response. In response to your family member’s question, you could declare your day “productive” and be done with it. Or, you could talk in great detail about how your team solved a problem at 3:00 pm, saving the company hundreds of thousands of dollars.
All this points to an important characteristic of human beings. When we tell someone about a past experience, we connect how we, and others, behaved during a given timeframe. This is the essence of storytelling. When we say, “once upon a time,” we signal the combination of a specific set of behaviors that occurred during a specific timeframe. We could frame it this way: A specific amount of time plus a specific set of actions equals a specific experience. When we relay that to others, it becomes a story.
Why Does this Matter?
At this point, you might be wondering, “OK, so what? How does the connection between time and action help me work in more effective ways?” And here’s one important way it matters.
The ability to connect time and action is not only something we do when describing the past. The same ability – to connect a specific time to specific behaviors – can also be used to imagine a desired future. In other words, we can tell ourselves stories about a better future and how, if we act in certain ways, we make that better future more likely. Let’s call this ability, behavioral foresight.
We can tell ourselves stories about a better future and how, if we act in certain ways, we make that better future more likely. Let’s call this ability, behavioral foresight.
Behavioral foresight happens when we imagine beforehand behaviors that will be needed just at a particular moment in time as we work on something critical.
Imagining and Developing Just In Time Action
When it comes to our work, it’s hard to overestimate the power of behavioral foresight. Effectiveness at work, and life for that matter, does in one very real sense come down to accessing effective behaviors at the moment they are needed. We could think of these behaviors as “just in time behaviors.” Just in time behaviors are similar to the behaviors of an actor on stage. In the moment of the performance, the actor accesses energy to display a behavior that adds value to the scene. She is acting the needed “part” at the right time in order to advance the story. Is this really all that different from what we do at work?
What if we could jettison the idea that our personalities are fixed? What if instead we embraced the notion that, if we are mindful and willing to learn, there is a wide variety of behaviors we can access to fit the need of the moment (and the work)? Then in a sense our actions at work would become similar to the actions of an actor on the stage. It would look like this:
- We determine what behaviors are necessary for a particular piece of work (just like the actor determines what specific behaviors are needed for a particular scene)
- We develop the ability to “stabilize” – or call up that behavior when needed (just like an actor – night after night – can bring out the behavior at the right moment of the scene)
- We apply that stabilized behavior at the right moment to the high-stakes work in order to advance the mission (just like an actor displays the behavior at the right moment in a scene to advance the story)
This leads us back to behavioral foresight.
Behavioral foresight is a critical skill needed to cultivate just in time behaviors.
Just in time behaviors are more likely when we imagine them before we need them and then connect those behaviors to the important work ahead. Behavioral foresight then is the ability to connect an upcoming piece of work to behaviors that will then, 1) make us more effective during the work, and 2) increase the success of the work.
So you would follow a process like this:
- Imagine your upcoming high-stakes work – Visualize and describe the work ahead and why it (uniquely) matters
- Imagine the needed behaviors – Visualize and describe the behaviors that would make you most effective during the upcoming high-stakes work
- Imagine possible obstacles – Visualize and describe the obstacles that could inhibit the needed behaviors (both within and without)
- Imagine the future you desire – Visualize yourself in the work executing with the needed behaviors (tell the story before it happens).
You can use behavioral foresight on high-stakes work, large and small. If you’re beginning a new project, you might work the process to determine the most important behaviors you will need to demonstrate throughout the project. You could, however, alter your view to a smaller amount of time. Instead of applying to the process to the entire project, you could apply it to the first project meeting with your new team. At that timescale, you might tell yourself a story about:
- The purpose of the first meeting and how you want it to go
- The unique reasons why the first meeting matters
- What behaviors you need to demonstrate to contribute to an effective first meeting
Behavioral foresight will not always yield the future we desire. We are, at the core, unable to control the future – or much of the present for that matter. But we can work to influence it through an imaginative and deliberate approach to our behavior within certain moments.
Try it Out
Take a piece of high-stakes work and walk the steps of the behavioral foresight process. You can use your own tool or download the fillable PDF below.
Here is the four-step process:
- Imagine and describe the high-stakes work (what is the work and why specifically does it matter?)
- Imagine and describe your needed behaviors (what behaviors do you need to display to be effective in this work?)
- Imagine and describe the potential behavioral obstacles (what obstacles could thwart your ability to act with the needed behaviors?)
- Imagine the better future (What could the future look like if you succeed?)