What’s Your Timeline?

Everyone is on a different clock. The trick is getting them to work together.

Are you retired on active duty? As an acronym, you'd be a ROADie. You've got your retirement date circled, starred and highlighted on your calendar. If you could, you'd put a blinking neon sign on it. You're ready to go, and truth be told, you're not super-motivated to take on new assignments or work past 5 o'clock every day.

Or are you fresh meat? You're new on the job-maybe having spent a few years in the private sector or the nonprofit world-and you're eager to assume big projects and help plan your office's long-term future.

Or are you somewhere in between? If you're the president, you operate on a four-year timeline. If you're a political appointee, you might be thinking anywhere between two and four years. You could be halfway through your career as a civil servant, and you see yourself with your agency for another 15 to 20 years. You'd be roughly on par with many members of Congress who oversee your agency's operations. Most lawmakers are in safe seats and therefore can think about where your agency is headed in the long term.

At the same time, everyone is operating on annual appropriations cycles. Those 12-month budget timelines are complicated by the lack of certainty in funding that accompanies the regular political song and dance that leaves budget decisions up in the air well into the beginning of each fiscal year. This year, for example, Congress might leave agencies' funding at last year's levels through November, January, March or even next October.

All these conflicting time intervals pose tricky challenges for managers trying to steer their programs. The congressional budget battles leave you in a pickle for planning much beyond this fall.

How can you look ahead to next year if you don't know whether you'll even have a big enough budget to cover inflation and pay raises at current levels of operation? You'd like to come up with a five-year plan for, say, reducing the backlog of pending cases for your office. But your boss is a ROADie who's content to punch the clock every day and burn some use-it-or-lose-it leave on Fridays. The political appointee heading your division is more gung-ho, but he's set an overly ambitious and unrealistic goal for halving the backlog by November. He's also been trying to fend off a proposed governmentwide rule, required by a recently passed statute, that would impose extra steps in the casework process. The appropriator who sponsored the statute is not interested in the appointee's backlog reduction goal and instead wants to know the long-term effects of the rule she is monitoring with an eagle eye. Your employees, meanwhile, are just trying to meet their daily quotas without losing their minds.

Synchronizing everyone's internal clock is impossible. Inherently, people have their own timelines and different goals associated with those timelines. The key for managers is what a military leader would call situational awareness. To put a new spin on an old phrase, knowing is half the battle. When you've identified all the actors in your world and the timelines they're on, you'll be better able to anticipate obstacles that stand in the way of achieving your objectives.

Understanding what other people are trying to achieve, and when they want to reach their goals, can allow you to find ways to help them so they help you. You might not get everyone on the same clock, but you can at least get everyone moving in the same direction.

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

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