Buying time, depth and distance

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Dimensions of work

A few years ago, I met Claudia Kotchka. She was responsible for introducing Design Thinking at Procter & Gamble. The two sentences I can remember today, even when waking up at 3am are:

  1. „When introducing a new approach, go where the suction is.“
  2. „Basically, what I did was buying time for the teams to think.“

So, since then I know that what I do is buying time. But it’s more: What I really do is, buying the right levels of time, depth and distance.

My life:

Some days go haywire, some days are calm.

Sometimes I am all distracted by everyday things that have to happen.

Sometimes I have the time to think about things. sometimes I have to take a walk or sit somewhere outside. 

Sometimes I can choose, sometimes I can’t.

When I need to get my little book keeping done, I know that an attention span of 20 minutes here and there again over the day will get me all the way.

When I think about how to come up with that next workshop for a client that takes me to new territory, 20 minutes here and there don’t get me anywhere.

When a company thinks about the next operational improvement, a small review meeting of 90 minutes may just be fine.

When a product team thinks of a nifty feature to increase customer engagement in a specific corner of their product, that may just be fine.

When we think about the concept of a new app, we need more time and depth and distance.

When we think about a news strategy or business case, we need even more time, depth and distance.

Do you remember the effect when you last had a long walk or run, where you thought up something great, with immense clarity? Depth (undisturbed time).

Do you remember the last time when you had a challenging thought and had think it over for 28 times over the course of a few months? Depth (time, distance and repetition).

We need different levels of time, depth and distance for different levels of wickedness in the problems we solve:


We need little time for solving simple problems. Small, tiny features, can be invented in no time. They are obvious. The problems with obvious are: a) Although we need to build many obvious features, they are not attractive to work on. Standard work. Still they might be required.

The harder the problem gets, the more time we need. coming up with a new business model or strategy, simply takes more time.


But time is not enough. Time is required, but not sufficient. I can spend all the time in the world on a hard problem, but it does not help when an environment does not support depth.

Some signs of depth: A calm environment, long time periods of uninterrupted work, long time periods without being asked if there is already a solution.

Time alone does not help. We need uninterrupted time to save harder problems.


But, the bad news is: Time and depth alone are not enough for the hardest problems: For these we need distance as well.

Distance is needed, when we need to be able to see what we are doing from a different angle. Most innovation on the market happens because teams can look at the market from outside of the company, with great distance to the companies’ everyday life.

Take a look into the remote research that Jan does with his pop up studios in , let’s say, Azerbaidzhan, in which he takes teams into the remote world that they later want to serve: This approach serves for time, depth and distance. The same applies to what Toyota did when they wanted to come upon with the Prius: Engineers spent lost of time in the US to understand how to design a car that fulfils Toyota’s goals on the American market.

I am sure you understand that.

If we look at how work is organised in companies, let’s look how these ways of organising work serve for different levels of time, depth and distance.

Sitting at our desk, doing pre-defined work

Most of the time, when we do this, the work is already broken down, the task is )or should be) clear. Most of the time there is little depth available, distance can’t happen. This is an ideal setting for simply cutting through simple tasks.


Regular or ad hoc meetings provide for a little more time and depth, but still no distance. Meeting every Wednesday at 11am is a good way to stay synchronized and it serves a little depth, as it gives us the chance to repeatedly think about the same things. But the small amount of time (mostly one hour) does not cater for enough depth and time to do groundbreaking things. This is why meetings are a bad way to plan great news things.


Workshops (even better series of workshops) help much better in understanding, dissecting and solving more complicated problems. We have much more undisturbed time, which allows for more friction, diversity of views and a more exploratory character of our work.


Offsetes enter the element of distance to workshops. The added spacial distance really helps getting away from everyday issues. That can be amplified by not looking into emails, leaving the smartphones switched off and so on. If you really organise your workshops this way and understand that the added value of distance only plays out when the „no everyday work“ rules are applied, you can pull off amazing things at offsites. Take care that no one feels important by being needed for calls or email.

External research team

If the problem you want to find or address is really deep or something really new (as in: a new business model, strategy, product etc.) you should really think of sending people outside of your company. Physically. Just the small talk at lunch with the colleges can be quite discouraging (for both parties: „the lunatics“, „the holiday project“ vs. „IT is the place wehere good things go to die“).

External symptoms of depth and distance are calmness or strange behaviour like reading books at work. to every organisations loves this.

Mapping the dimension to the 3 Horizons

If you think about the 3 Horizon model, you might find the following mapping useful:

Horizon 1 (generating money with today’s products): Anything from shallow for standard work to any level of depth for innovative process improvements might apply.

Horizon 2 (become a concern in new markets): Here, patience is required to pull through getting the first version of a product to market against all odds. The big bet. Time and depth are required. Distance not so much. Time still needs to be managed as a scarce resource, though. New things need to be delivered soon!

Horizon 3 (find new opportunities in new markets): Requires distance above all other things: We need to totally absorb the market with an outside view of a visionary. Depth and time may often be required to achieve that distance. Hence the innovation models that leave the company, R&D teams down at Clay Street in the case of P&G, incubators and so on.


What I want to say: Choosing a way of organising work sets the level of time, depth and distance that can be applied. There is no good and bad, but levels of appropriateness regarding the work to be done. We should have that in mind. I see that the more organisational forms are required towards the far ends of time, depth and distance, often the less these practices are accepted in companies. The appropriate practices are replaces with practices that don’t meet the aim – mostly simply because we are used to these tools. Meetings often are the standard way to organise work. Lots of value generating work that is required in companies requires much different ways of work.

Title Picture: By Julian-G. Albert on flickr

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