BCG Henderson Institute

Building a Smarter Clock for Business: Time Management Is Not Just about Speed

Leaders must learn to vary the tempo in a dynamic context, manage rhythm and synchronization in an interconnected world, and embrace adaptive rules and structures when confronted with pressure across multiple timescales.

In our technology-fueled, fast-paced world, speed is crucial to success. Bringing new products or features to market ahead of the competition, adapting to emerging demands or regulations quickly, reacting to an unanticipated downturn or crisis, or being the first to implement new technologies can all create a competitive edge.

We’ve witnessed the importance of speed during the past 18 months; the arms race in Large Language Models has resulted in the release of a rapid succession of models and features. Companies also keep striving to increase the RPM of their business models: Netflix, TikTok, and Amazon now all use real-time customer data to update their recommendation algorithms. Chinese fashion retailer Shein—whose valuation exceeded the combined worth of H&M and Zara in a 2022 funding round—analyzes customers’ clicks across its site to predict demand, rolling out between 2,000 and 10,000 new styles a day. Shein’s approach has been dubbed “real time fashion.”

Time management was never just about speed

However, not all great companies are built on speed. Some have built their success on patience. Apple, for example, has a long-standing strategy of taking the time to make sure its products work seamlessly—even if this means not being first-to-market with features such as facial recognition, wireless charging, or a foldable form factor.

Other companies are built to be altogether timeless: Look no further than luxury brands, such as Rolex, whose slogan “perpetual” has been written on the face of every one of its watches for more than a century.

And while losing time is usually considered a value-destroying friction, some companies have built successful products based on slowing the pace. Google’s reCaptcha feature—making website visitors click on pictures of buses, bicycles, or street lamps to prove their humanity—may cost users time, but has become an important tool for reducing spamming and botting.

The concept of time-based competition, pioneered by Japanese automakers in the 1970s and 1980s and codified by George Stalk and Thomas Hout, reframed time from a mere denominator for accounting metrics to a feature that could form the basis of competitive advantage. But time management was never just about speed. Indeed, with algorithms now gathering, processing, and acting on information near-instantaneously, the human speed of information processing and decision making is no longer our frontier.

At the same time, new aspects of time management are gaining in importance in a changing business environment. In this article, we identify the new time management capabilities firms will need to develop to achieve a time-based advantage.

Time is a-changing

The business environment is changing in various ways, necessitating a new view of time.

The number of relevant rhythms inside and outside businesses is multiplying. Every organization is defined by rhythms, for example, annual product releases, quarterly financial statements, monthly board meetings, and daily team meetings. One key to successful organizational action lies in synchronizing the rhythms of all the relevant stakeholders. But different teams within a business have their own rhythms for planning, responding, and acting depending on unspoken rules of interaction. And with new ways of working making working times and locations more heterogenous, aligning rhythms within the organization is becoming more difficult.

Moreover, businesses are becoming ever more interconnected not just with one another, but also with the natural and social systems in which they are embedded—systems that evolve on different timescales and according to different rhythms (such as legislative terms and climate patterns). As a result, the number and diversity of temporal patterns businesses confront is increasing—creating a need for new approaches to synchronizing internal and external rhythms.

Time passes more irregularly and less predictably. Time is increasingly passing in bursts, unpredictably speeding up and slowing down. Sometimes years of progress seem to occur in the span of months. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella observed that the COVID pandemic triggered “two years’ worth of digitization efforts in just two months.” On other issues, time seems move quite slowly—for example, it took more than a decade after Alexander Fleming’s publications on the discovery of penicillin for the medical community to realize its potential. In this context, it what becomes crucial for businesses than speed is the ability to vary the speed. Thisentails not just shortening timelines, but also adapting the organization’s internal rhythms accordingly.

Pressure is increasing on both short and long timescales. An extraordinary historical period of cheap capital has come to an end. With rising interest rates comes greater pressure on companies to generate short-term returns for their investors. The higher costs of capital make the exploration of potential sources of future competitive advantage—through investments in innovation and experimentation—more expensive. At the same time, the need to innovate around new technologies has never been more urgent. As a result, achieving long-term outperformance has become more complex and challenging.

At the same time, phenomena that used to be treated as long-term issues are now impinging on the present: As the planetary impact of our actions comes into sharper view, businesses are feeling the need to become more aware and deliberate about the further-out implications of their activities, and to balance these implications against their short-term intentions. This necessitates a greater focus on slow change.

Firms seeking sustainable success need to balance executing on their current strategy with reinventing themselves and creating future options by thinking and acting on multiple timescales. As achieving this ambidexterity becomes more and more difficult, businesses need to find new ways to break the trade-offs between present and future performance.

An expanded toolkit for managing time

As time itself becomes increasingly complex, senior leaders need a more sophisticated toolkit. It will be crucial for them to build the four following capabilities:

1. Setting the rhythm(s)

A steady rhythm is key to keeping an organization moving, ensuring that necessary decisions are made and that all relevant parties are coordinated and aligned. Natural rhythms may differ across divisions or groups within an organization because of varying habits and external requirements.

To help teams keep to a rhythm, executives should make it explicit. The most natural way to think of a rhythm involves a regular meeting cadence that propagates across the key functions and throughout the layers of the organization. By setting a rhythm, executives also lay the groundwork for deliberately varying it as the need arises.

Executives also need to consider the rhythms of the environments they confront—which includes knowledge of the external timescales of change, as well as being aware of which variables move together. Practically speaking, this may involve developing a system of metrics spanning relevant environments and examining notable changes in patterns. European food processing and packaging giant TetraPak tracks and interprets more then 40 signposts to stay aware of and adapt to external timescales. For example, when price elasticity increases and the premium on sustainable packaging material falls, this indicates a shift toward greater commoditization, and TetraPak management reacts by accelerating efforts to produce lower-cost packaging.

2. Deliberately synchronizing (and desynchronizing) rhythms

In a world of multiplying internal and external rhythms, executives also need to think about the interdependencies among them. Within an organization, research and development activities can benefit greatly from flexible rhythms and adaptive alternations between agile sprints (daily or even hourly meetings) and exploratory periods in which individual clocks are de-synchronized. Sales activities, meanwhile, often need the “steady as she goes” metronome of daily and weekly reports and client calls.

There are different ways to synchronize the rhythms of these activities. One option is to leave each function to its own natural cadence, bringing them together for periodic meetings on a synchronizing beat that allows them to provide mutual updates and reports. In other words, deliberately de-synchronizing can be a solution. Alternatively, firms can strive for a tighter integration of their search and execution processes, for example, by feeding insights from customer interactions constantly to product developers and by bringing new offerings to market quickly and iteratively.

Accomplishing such integration requires knocking down spatial and temporal boundaries between the disparate processes, such that each employee is always both exploring and exploiting. For example, in algorithm-based trading firms, which constantly tune their trading strategies to adapt to changing market situations, traders and coders are sometimes one and the same because the timeframe of operation does not allow for separation. The processes become fully synchronized.

As we enter the age of AI, more jobs within organizations will be done by machines. While it may be easier to synchronize computers with one another than to synchronize humans’ interactions, executives will face the new challenge of aligning the rhythms of flesh-bound and silicon-bound cognition. As the speed of AI can easily exceed human perceptual and cognitive limits, system designers need to make sure they produce output at a pace that is actionable for humans.

3. Varying the tempo according to task and context

As time passes more irregularly, managers need to master ways of varying the tempo at which their organization operates.

This can take the form of speeding up, which means more than just shortening timelines or moving up milestones: The rhythm needs to be adjusted accordingly. For example, a sudden acceleration may mean that middle-management needs to be short-circuited, and lower hierarchical levels are involved directly in decisions. A sudden change in rhythm is not to be taken lightly, as it imposes significant relational, psychological, and physiological costs on everyone involved. But a step increase in speed for a sound reason, which everyone buys into, can be crucial to deploying a critical innovation.

As an example, consider Pfizer’s Lightspeed project, in which the company developed an effective COVID vaccine in nine months—one-tenth of the usual time it takes for vaccine development. Speeding up in this fashion required rapidly resolving any issues and making decisions on the spot. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla wrote that, “[We had to] knock down silos, hear everyone out, and quickly move things forward.”[1]Bourla, Albert (2022): Moonshot: Inside Pfizer’s Nine-Month Race to Make the Impossible Possible. Harper Business. He organized biweekly meetings with all relevant internal stakeholders, irrespective of hierarchy and without preset agendas—enabling employees to secure the resources needed and fostering fast learning cycles across the organization.

Of course, varying the tempo may also take the form of slowing down, which can be just as powerful as speeding up. This is illustrated by the GenAI race, in which the world’s two most valuable companies have vastly different approaches. While Microsoft is pushing full speed ahead through its investment into OpenAI and efforts to integrate its Copilot features across its offerings, Apple CEO Tim Cook emphasizes the need to be “deliberate and thoughtful,” only recently giving developers access to a GenAI-based photo editing model (which is still at the research stage).

Moving more slowly can also have benefits for the humans in the organization. The push for continued acceleration witnessed over the past decades has gone hand-in-hand with an increasing subdivision of tasks, such that each employee becomes a smaller cog in the overall machine, more removed from the overarching goals and purpose of the business model. As people increasingly seek purpose and fulfilment from their work, reducing the pace could be a crucial unlock—if it enables employees to work on whole problems and toward longer-term goals.

4. Mixing strict and flexible approaches to time management

Highly structured processes are ideal for efficiently navigating predictable timelines. They remain the default, even though our volatile world calls for enhanced adaptivity. To confront dynamic timelines, executives should leave room for less structured approaches, for example, by designing processes to allow for individual discretion, whereby employees can use their understanding of a specific context to achieve a superior outcome. Such process changes should be coupled with a thorough analysis of which deviations from the codified steps were successful and why—and evolving the script accordingly.

Adaptivity is also crucial for engaging with more complex and interwoven timelines, arising from the need to consider the effects of decisions on multiple timescales. For example, firms can adapt their organizational structures by putting in place temporal business units, charged with developing capabilities or offerings on different time horizons. An illustration of this is Alphabet’s differentiated approach to machine learning and AI development: Google is responsible for short-term improvements to the technology underlying its search algorithms, while DeepMind is focused on developing a general artificial intelligence, which can power innovations in the longer term.

An alternative is the introduction of time-based rules, such as bounding the overall duration of a project. For example, private equity and venture firms use time-limited funds, set up for a specific period, at the end of which the acquired assets will be divested; IPOs and other exits are pursued for “winners” and liquidations for other holdings. This effectively delimits the relevant timescales of any decisions and provides a beginning, middle, and end to the fund.

Businesses have long realized that time can be a source of competitive advantage. But the toolkit for managing time is usually focused on going as fast as possible. There is value to be gained by expanding the toolkit to better manage rhythm and synchronization in an interconnected world, by learning to vary the tempo in a dynamic context, and by embracing adaptive rules and structures when confronted with pressure across multiple timescales.

Taking inspiration from music

To help us to grasp new possibilities for managing time, we can look to one of the most natural ways in which we experience its flow and structure in a sophisticated manner, and a field in which a precise operational vocabulary around time already exists: music.

The compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, widely acknowledged as being one of the greatest composers of all time, illustrate ways in which rhythm, synchronization, tempo, and structure can be masterfully applied in different contexts.

Rhythm: Bach often deliberately aligned or misaligned rhythms across voices to create different effects and tensions. Rather than striving for strict temporal alignment, he often deliberately sought rhythmic variation: In his “Dorian” Toccata and Fugue (BWV 538), notice how the chords played off-beat add complexity to a motoric sixteenth note motif (timestamp 00:15-00:38). Being inventive in the use of rhythm is key to grasping the attention of the audience. In the organizational context, a rhythm-savvy executive can design different organizational processes so that they overlap at specific times—when different teams need to communicate—without subjecting everyone to exactly the same pattern.

Synchronization: Bach’s organ pieces require the performer to play different lines of notes with both hands and feet in parallel. At the outset of his Toccata and Fugue in F major (BWV 540), Bach develops a canon, in which the melody is first played by the right hand, and then repeated by the left—offset in time and shifted in pitch. After a short pedal solo, the canon repeats, but with the hands being switched, the left leading the right (timestamp 00:00-01:00). Thus, the melody is being repeated as well as transformed, with the layering of the voices creating a polyphony that yields new textures and tensions. As businesses find it harder than ever to simultaneously execute on existing and search for new advantages, Bach highlights how execution and reinvention can be fruitfully combined, rather than traded off against one another.

Tempo: Arguably Bach’s most famous work is the Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565). In the piece’s opening, Bach varies the tempo, alternating slow and solemn sections with fast and undulating passages (timestamp 00:00-00:56). Academics have likened the opening to a storm: The sudden opening bars represents a flash of lightning, the subsequent slow buildup of a chord a rolling thunder, and the following fast notes wind and rain.[2]Keller, Hermann (1948). Die Orgelwerke Bachs: Ein Beitrag zu ihrer Geschichte. Form, Deutung und Wiedergabe. Leipzig: C. F. Peters. The way we feel time pass by varies with the complexity of the experience we are engaged in, and composers understand this well, leveraging to focus the attention of the audience on specific passages, as well as to convey different moods. Similarly, mastering the art of varying the tempo—rather than pushing only for maximum speed—is crucial for organizations trying to find their bearings in dynamic environments.

Structure: Bach was a master of the “Toccata and Fugue” form, which consists of two sections that differ significantly in structure. The toccata is more free form, meaning that tempo and rhythm can vary substantially over very short periods of time. The toccata also allows for more improvisatory performances, in which musicians can deviate from a strict tempo and rhythm, speeding up or slowing down notes or phrases to enable more expressive and personal interpretations of the music. This is contrasted with the fugue section, which follows strict rules of harmony and regular rhythmic patterns and tempi.

By combining these two contrasting sections, Bach could not only keep the audience engaged through variation, but also accomplish multiple goals in a single composition. The toccata section allowed him to showcase his creativity in crafting melodic motifs, while the fugue allowed him to display his mastery in developing intricate musical structures within tight boundaries.

In the corporate world, executives are caught between heeding timelines and milestones on the one hand, and a need for freedom in planning and flexibility in execution on the other. Resolving this tension often feels like a hopeless choice between setting rigid clocks, which yields a structured monotony that quells innovation, and loosening time constraints at the risk of creating an uncontrollable and unpredictable network of activities. But master composers like Bach show that monotony and repetition need not be stifling.

Glossary: Musical terminology for time management

  • Rhythm: a periodically repeated pattern of notes
  • Beat: the basic unit of rhythm in music—the tone on which the accent falls
  • Tempo: the speed of a pattern (a higher tempo means more beats per minute)
  • Synchronization: the operation of aligning the timing of different beats or melodies (like two voices in a chorus, so they come together at specific times)
  • Polyphony: the simultaneous co-existence of multiple melodic lines
  • Canon: a composition technique in which a lead melody is repeated or imitated by another voice after a given duration

*The embedded audio work by James Kibbie, The Complete Organ Works of J.S. Bach is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

  • Martin Reeves

    Chairman, BCG Henderson Institute

  • Mihnea Moldoveanu

    Professor and Vice Dean of Learning and Innovation at Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

  • Adam Job

    Director, Strategy Lab

Sources & Notes


1 Bourla, Albert (2022): Moonshot: Inside Pfizer’s Nine-Month Race to Make the Impossible Possible. Harper Business.
2 Keller, Hermann (1948). Die Orgelwerke Bachs: Ein Beitrag zu ihrer Geschichte. Form, Deutung und Wiedergabe. Leipzig: C. F. Peters.