University of Minnesota professor looks into how timing affects decisionmaking

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2013 - 10:33 AM

A U professor thinks insight into the sequence of events can help people make better decisions in many situations.


Stuart Albert, a business professor at the University of Minnesota, has written a book about the importance of timing in making business decisions.


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Stuart Albert believes good timing can be learned.

After a 20-year investigation of the topic, and years helping companies of all sizes manage timing issues better, the University of Minnesota Carlson School professor has published a book called “When: The Art of Perfect Timing.”

The premise is that good timing is not just a matter of luck, intuition or experience, but something that people can think through if they will only step back and try to understand the sequence and interplay of events.

The book will be translated into Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, German, Japanese, Chinese and Korean, Albert said.


Q: How did you get interested in timing?

A: It was August 1990 and Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait. I said to a colleague, ‘If we’re going to war, I know when it’s going to be. It’s going to be January.’ As things developed, that’s when the war started, and so I became interested in how I knew that. I opened my computer and wrote down everything that formed the basis for that intuition. Eventually I had over 100 pages. After that experience, I decided that a book on timing was needed. After all, timing is everything.


Q: How did you go about studying the subject?

A: Instead of the sophisticated methodologies of modern social science — using computers, conducting surveys and interviews, designing experiments, or building complex models — I became a hunter-gatherer. I read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Economist cover-to-cover for over 20 years and clipped out every article that had anything to do with timing, particularly if there was a mistake. I then asked myself how that error could have been prevented based on what could have been known at the time. I washed away the content and looked for underlying temporal elements and structures — rhythms, sequences, points of punctuation, etc., and how those determined what happened. I’ve now examined over 2,000 articles. My analysis of those clippings, as well as my work with companies both here and in Boston, formed the basis for my book.


Q: What did that research yield?

A: I’ve trained my eye to see what’s hidden in plain sight. In a way, the process of conducting a timing analysis is like reading the children’s book “Where’s Waldo.” There are parts of our environment, facts and relationships that we simply miss and need to find. My book describes six elements that are part of every situation we face. These six form patterns that look like a musical score. To get the timing right, you need to know the score. But no musical knowledge is required, just skill in learning to see the six elements and the patterns they form with each other.


Q: What are the six elements?

A: We need to look for sequences — what follows what; punctuation — where do things begin, end, stop and start; intervals — how much time is there between events; rate — how fast are things going; what’s the shape or rhythm by which things unfold; and then polyphony — a lot of things are happening at the same time, and how they all play out together is where windows of opportunity emerge. In the last chapter, I describe a seven-step process for analyzing why things happen when they do and deciding when to act.


Q: Can you give an example?

A: Let’s talk about the recent government shutdown, and how it could have been predicted six months earlier. There were two issues: funding the government (Oct. 1), and raising the debt ceiling (Oct. 17). Everyone knew the latter was the more important. There are two timing principles at work. First, when two decisions are close in time, they are likely to be linked. Second, how the first is decided can set a precedent for the second. So why was the government shut down? Partly it was a question of timing. The decision about whether to fund the government came first, and no side could afford to compromise given the more serious issue of raising the debt ceiling that would be coming up shortly. Sometimes a conflict can be decided as much by the temporal characteristics of the battleground as by the motives and power of the combatants. The book is filled with examples of such patterns that we often miss or fail to appreciate.


Q: Why don’t we see these types of timing patterns?

A: Part of it has to do with how our brain works. Assume you are at work. Imagine putting a key in your front door. Notice that you didn’t think about the sequence of steps needed to get home, the traffic lights, stop signs, etc. Your mind simply skipped from where you were at work to the image of inserting the key in your front door. Our brain makes it possible to think about something faster than it takes to do it. If we couldn’t, we’d all be dead. But the unintended consequence is that we often forget about sequences, and as we saw in the government shutdown example, sequences matter.


Q: Who is the book aimed for?

A: The book is intended for the general reader and the intelligent professional in any field, who needs to think about timing in his or her work and life. It supplies a methodology to think through questions of timing in any context. Because it took 20 years to research and write, the first sentence should be, ‘This book is late.’


Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 • Twitter: @adambelz

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