Erin Meyer uses the terms linear and flexible when describing how people in different cultures approach time and scheduling. Edward T. Hall, a well-known anthropologist and culture scholar, describes the differences in time orientation as polychronic (p-time) cultures vs. monochronic (m-time) cultures. M-time cultures view time as tangible and concrete. Scheduling is used as a classification system that orders life. P-time cultures, on the other hand, adhere to a flexible approach to time, involvement of people, and completion of transactions. In P-time cultures, a more general, approximate time to meet is suggested.
We can see a cultural approach to clocks: some cultures measure time in 5 minute intervals, while others barely use clocks and schedule on “event time” (before lunch, after sunrise, etc.). In the following video, Sana Reynolds, an international business consultant and instructor at Baruch College, discusses how different cultures view the role of time in society, our ability to control it (or lack thereof), and the way these perspectives show up in common proverbs and expressions.
Relationships and the Scheduling Scale
The importance of relationships is key in understanding the scheduling scale. If relationships are a priority, you put them before the clock. Cultures with a preference for relationship building fall on the flexible-time side of the scheduling scale. When people from a flexible-time culture collaborate, their priorities and processes might be quite different from those who take a more linear approach.
Linear Time Project Management: Project steps are approached in a sequential fashion, completing one task before beginning the next. One thing at a time. No interruptions. Focus on the deadline and stick to the schedule. There is an emphasis on promptness and good organization over flexibility.
Flexible Time Project Management: Projects steps are approached in a fluid manner, changing tasks as opportunities arise. Many things are dealt with at once and interruptions are accepted. The focus is on adaptability, and flexibility is valued over organization.
The chart below shows examples of where certain countries fall on the scheduling dimension.
Challenges: Linear vs. Flexible Time Orientation
Linear-time cultures tend to view time as a resource that can and should be carefully managed. Responsibility for time management lies with the individual and his/her control of internal factors (backup planning, anticipating delays, etc.).
Flexible-time cultures tend to view time as a force of nature that cannot be fully controlled. Responsibility for time management is limited due to uncontrollable external factors (traffic, weather, illness, etc.).
Challenges for Flexible-Time-Oriented People
Assuming a certain amount of flexibility in a task/project deadline when others view it as more strict
Treating meeting start times as a suggestion, not realizing others may perceive tardiness as disrespect or lack of professionalism
Challenges for Fixed-Time-Oriented People
Group leaders assign deadlines too aggressively
Overreacting when collaborators display minor time-management issues
Not allowing discussions to extend beyond a preset end time