Are You Detail Conscious or a Big Picture Person? - Barry Johnson


Elliott Jaques postulated that just as humans differ in intelligence, we differ in our ability to handle time-dependent complexity. Wow, I wonder what that means. Some people are good at day-to-day activities and some think farther out. This applies to both our business lives and our personal lives. 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. There is a difference though. Intelligence grows and is at maximum in our early twenties and then grows no more. We learn more but our intelligence does not change. Whereas “time span of discretion” grows throughout our lives and for different people grows at very different rates. So two people with similar intelligence say at twenty years of age may have very different time spans of discretion at say thirty and there is nothing the person with the shorter time span can do to catch up with his companion. The other thing Jaques noted was the type of hierarchical job in an organisation was related to time span, that is time span of discretion is about achieving goals that have explicit time frames and is tiered. Perhaps a level 1 job such as sales assistant or a line worker handling routine tasks may have a time span of up to three months. Some people are routinely operating within a time span of a day, whereas Levels 2 to 4 encompass various managerial positions with time horizons between one to five years. Once a person reaches Level 5 he or she can operate in a job that requires 5 to 10 years. This is the domain of small company CEOs and large company executive vice presidents. Few of us can even aspire to rise above such jobs to that of statesmen and legendary business leaders who are comfortable with innate time horizons of 20 years or more, say a Galileo who is believed to be able to operate at perhaps level 7 that is 50 years.
Current data unambiguously indicate a neurobiological basis for intelligence, particularly for reasoning and novel problem-solving ability (which is also strongly predicted by psychometric g). Neuroimaging and neuroanatomical data are consistent with sophisticated behavioural studies of intelligence and specific aspects of working memory. From this vantage point, the formulation of detailed neurobiological models of intelligence is inevitable but we are not there yet.
So we can measure intelligence and use it for selection but on its own will not indicate the organisational operational level a person may reach. The measurement of time span of discretion with the measure of g does give a better indication as has been shown by selection of senior officers in the American army. But experience factors are still valid and required.
So why is Time span of discretion of importance to a manager. When setting objectives, completion is targeted to be within a time horizon. It follows that setting an annual objective for a person who is operating within a three monthly time horizon is manifestly nonsense.
Let us come at this from a different point of view. Within the Myers-Briggs profile individuals select whether they are an S or an N, that is Sensing (S) or Intuition (N). That is do you pay more attention to information that comes in through your five senses (Sensing), or do you pay more attention to the patterns and possibilities that you see in the information you receive (Intuition)?
Everyone spends some time Sensing and some time using Intuition.
A sensing person may pay attention to physical reality, what he or she sees, hears, touches, tastes and smells. That is they are concerned with what is actual, present, current, and real. He or she notices facts and remembers details that are important to him or her. They like to see the practical use of things and learn best when they see how to use what they are learning. Experience speaks to them louder than words. At the extreme they may say if it is not concrete it is not real.
Other people, the N’s pay the most attention to impressions or the meaning and patterns of the information they get. They prefer to learn by thinking a problem through than by hands-on experience. They are interested in what might be possible, so that they think more about the future than the present. They like ideas and abstract theories, even if they don't know how they will use them. They remember events more as an impression of what it was like than as actual facts or details of what happened.
If you are a very good ‘S’ you are probably highly intelligent and if you are a very good N you probably have a time span of discretion that correlated to your organisational position. And if you are high in both intelligence and Time span of discretion, move over CEO.
Why have we told you this? Well it may just clarify some things you have noticed about yourself and about the people you are managing. For me I am an N.