“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.” wrote Douglas Adams in Chapter 2 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As much as I think this is true, it does not keep me from having lunch every day… Yet, I think it’s valuable to know that lunchtime is a vague point in time, individual, subjective, relative, and highly dependent on context.
I agree with Alistair when he says that it’s not useful to identify the last responsible moment (as a point in time) for a specific decision or action. But that’s not the point: to me last responsible moment is a signal, a symbol for and an expression of a mindset. A mindset of being aware of your Real Options.
(A huge Thank You to Matt Barcomb for encouraging me and improving this post with unique insights!)
Always Too Early
Most people and organisations I meet and coach pay too much attention to time:
- They plan the duration of work in advance.
- They commit to due dates (milestones, deadlines…) in advance.
- They estimate efforts in units of “ideal” time.
(as if there was such a thing as non-ideal time. What would that be? Less illusionary?)
I don’t say stop paying attention to time. Time is important. But stop treating it as an objective measure on which to rely. Time is as relative to you as it is to your clients and staff, the only things you can rely on are uncertainty and change.
We are brought up with the constant advice to be on time. But what does that mean, really? Most of the decisions and commitments we make do not have a clear point in time after which we are too late. Yet we limit our options, thereby reducing possibilities to later increase the value of the outcome, by being too early. (Sometimes from a social acceptance perspective we are considered too late after a distinct point, because we do tend to set times and dates early. Though even that is based on the kind of activity, the relationship with the person, or the formality of the event.)
We treat our actions, decisions and commitments this way because we’ve been educated in constant fear of being too late. We don’t like uncertainty, we want our future to be safe. I think there’s a lot of value in a language that reminds us that it isn’t. A language that makes us embrace uncertainty, inspires us to change the world instead of to react to it changing around us.
The last responsible moment to me is part of that language. I’ll follow Alistair’s example and take it apart to explain why.
Last responsible moment to me does not mean that I have to identify one specific point in time where the cost of delay just outweighs the benefit of delay (though I value this economic thinking suggested by Karl Scotland). To me, last is a constant reminder that I might not yet have evaluated all options of starting/finishing/deciding later. And, as we seldom work on one single thing at a time, that there might be a more important thing to do now rather than doing the one thing I’m currently thinking of.
Remember the simplicity principle of agile software development: Maximise the amount of work not done! One thing I increasingly find in my own work is that repeated deferral of “important” tasks leads to them being not done at all. The last responsible moment might just as well be never.
Responsibility (For Your Options)
“Options have value. Options expire. Never commit early unless you know why.” (Real Options mantra)
The most important part in that mantra are the last three words: You Know Why. This puts me into responsibility. I invest my time in whatever I do expecting a certain value. I am responsible for that value, no one else. I am responsible for the decision when and where I invest my time, which task I’m going to spend effort on now. If anyone else sets constraints (like due dates, for example) upon my work, limiting my options, that’s because I made commitments based on decisions for which, again, I am responsible.
The Real Options mindset (expressed in the phrase last responsible moment) to me is about awareness for my responsibility, and awareness of my options. We might be able to reduce uncertainty by committing to a plan, but we need to accept that we reduce the possible outcome we might want at the end of executing the plan…
If early commitment makes you sleep better, that might be your reason for committing early. You might even want to limit your options, because you make a decision. To think about the last responsible moment doesn’t stop you from deciding early, it just reminds you to think about Why you want to do that.
Moment, to me, is the perfect word to account for the subjectiveness of time. Due date, start date, milestone are words that make you ignore uncertainty. A moment is fleeting, ephemeral. A moment is not something on which you rely or build a plan. A moment in the future is not a point in time to be written down and communicated.
To me the last responsible moment is an ephemeral point in the phase space of my real options, where effort and value are in perfect balance for a good enough outcome.
I use the last responsible moment expression to guide my thinking about time and value. I use it to communicate a strategy for lean thinking and planning. I never put a date on it.
Lean Procrastination is a way to organise work, built upon Real Options, Deliberate Discovery, Beyond Budgeting, Drive, Obliquity, Distributed Cognition, Lean Startup… Something serious is emerging from a funny idea, we do not yet know what it will be.