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The OCR Glossary


Stuart Albert & Craig E. Carroll

Timing is the choice of when to act—or not act. Timing is ultimately the choice of location—where to place an action amid an ongoing stream of events that are unfolding moment by moment. Any time one can ask when is the right time to do something—or not do it—one has found a timing question.

Reputations are built and destroyed not merely by what is done, or how it is done or by whom, but by getting the timing wrong, being too late in responding to a threat or acting prematurely. As yet, there is no encyclopedic understanding of how to decide issues of timing. It is too early for that. Getting the timing right is difficult, and mistakes, which can damage a company’s reputation, are common.

This entry examines six elements essential to good timing, identified by Stuart Albert in his book When: The Art of Perfect Timing. These are (1) sequence, (2) temporal punctuation, (3) duration, (4) rate, (5) shape, and (6) polyphony. This entry begins with a rationale for why timing is important and concludes with four different ways that timing can be used to determine strategy.


It is widely recognized that timing matters. In fact, it is often said that “timing is everything.” A company that misses the window and acts too soon or too late can have what it says or does dismissed or misinterpreted to its embarrassment or disadvantage. Reputational damage is a result of not only what is done but also when it is done—for example, a series of mistimed investments puts profit margins in jeopardy. Accounting rules are bent to hide the problem, and when this is discovered, the company’s reputation is damaged.

One reason why we make timing mistakes is because of what Albert calls the brain’s quantum or Q capacity. That capacity allows people to jump from one point in time to another without considering the intermediate steps. We could not survive as a species if it took an hour to think about an action that took an hour to accomplish. The result, however, is that our descriptions of the world tend to be time impoverished; they omit time-relevant characteristics, like sequences. When we do not think about what can follow what, our timing decisions will suffer.

Timing is difficult for many reasons. One reason is what Albert calls Copland’s constraint. Copland’s constraint was named after the composer Aaron Copland, who pointed out that when people listen to music, it is often difficult to listen to more than four melodies at one time before the composition becomes a blur of sound and the internal organization of the music is lost. Human beings have difficulty finding patterns when a large number of processes and events are going on at the same time. We make timing mistakes in part because we cannot know and hence anticipate how a tall stack of parallel processes will interact. Given Copeland’s constraint, we cannot even image the patterns that form with even small numbers of parallel processes.

Elements of Timing

Good timing requires that we pay attention to the six elements and the patterns they form with one another.


Sequence refers to the order of events, knowing what to do first, second, third, and so on. But there are other alternatives. We can choose to do everything at one point in time, which might be the correct timing solution if time is short. Another option is to do many tasks in parallel. That can be efficient if the problem of coordination can be solved. The final option is to do nothing, at least for the moment. These four options—(1) sequence, (2) singularity, (3) simultaneity, and (4) silence—are always present. Their pros and cons need to be considered.


Temporal punctuation refers to when events begin, pause, or end. An example is a deadline. Punctuation announces and creates entrances and exits. A company may miss a punctuation, misread it, or misinterpret it. For example, it may come to believe that something is over when it is not, or it may fail to recognize that something new has begun.

Interval and Duration

Interval length refers to how much time separates events, and duration refers to how long each event lasts. There are four types of intervals: (1) the time between, (2) the time since, (3) the time until, and (4) duration. All four need to be considered when deciding when to act. A timing rule can focus on any one of them. One might say, “Act now because enough time has elapsed since a recession [time since]” or “Act now, because that policy has been in place for nearly a decade [duration]. Time for a change.”


Rate refers to how quickly or slowly events take place. Rate has a number of characteristics. For example, the normal rate (N-rate) is the normal or expected rate of change or development. Another characteristic is the 4 cell rate envelope, defined as the maximum and minimum speed of the fastest and slowest process. If timing depends on knowing how long something will take, then it is important to find the maximum speed of the slowest process that is involved.


Shape is shorthand for the shape of the curve that describes how a process develops and changes over time. That shape can be linear or curvilinear; it may continue in one direction, rise and fall, or circle back. Curves have many shapes, and knowing which shape is present is important. Linear and exponential curves look the same in the beginning. Knowing where an inflection point is located is also important. Tandemizing shapes are those that move in tandem or parallel to one another. One should also pay attention to whether there are upper limits or lower limits to a curve or shape, which can be objective or subjective.


Polyphony, a term from music meaning “many voiced,” refers to the fact that many processes occur at the same time, each with its own trajectory, which makes it important to consider how each process influences others. One process might cause, compete with, or facilitate another. Some actions have synchronous requirements; many conditions need to be simultaneously satisfied if the action is to succeed. Some events or processes can mask or overshadow others. And if too much is going on at the same time, the result can seem like chaos, which makes sensible decisions about timing difficult, if not impossible.

Timing Analyses and Competitive Action

A timing analysis is a structured way to decide issues of timing by considering the aforementioned six elements. The heart of a timing analysis is the search for the patterns, many of which are hidden from plain sight. A timing analysis will help surface them. A timing analysis does not attempt to predict the future but rather seeks a better understanding of the present. A competent timing analysis will complement, critique, or, if necessary, correct how an organization decides on issues of timing. It can also provide a common language for coordinating time-sensitive actions across the firm.


Violina Rindova, Walter Ferrier, and Robert Wiltbank show that when a firm’s sequences of action in a nascent market have certain Gestalt-like properties, it can influence how the firms are evaluated by investors. These properties are as follows:

Simplicity refers to a readily identifiable tendency. A simple sequence of actions enables observers to grasp a pattern without having to understand all the relationships among all elements. Research has shown that simple action sequences can lead to higher investor evaluations.

Predictability refers to the extent to which the elements of a whole sequence exhibit structural similarity across time. Predictability facilitates observers’ sensemaking and pattern recognition.

Grouping refers to a sequence of actions carried out in close temporal or ordinal proximity. Observers use simple rules to interpret complex sequences of action, giving primacy to those that are temporally, spatially, or ordinally contiguous. Without the ability to chunk, it would be difficult for observers to acquire, interpret, recall, and use information.

Motif refers to a sequence of actions that exhibits internal orderliness based on a stable structure. Motifs, from music theory, refer to a group of notes that are recognizable as a whole and express a definite melodic idea. A motif may appear repeatedly throughout a musical piece and may be played faster or slower, or in a different key yet still retain its recognizability. Motifs generate greater recall and more positive evaluations.


Good timing can mitigate reputation risks and help a firm seize opportunities that can enhance its reputation. Getting the timing right requires the ability to find and make sense of the six element patterns. The ability to do so can become a source of competitive advantage and can powerfully influence how others view and evaluate a firm’s reputation.

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See Also

Communication Strategy; Reputation Management; Strategic Inaction; Strategic Silence; Strategy

See Also

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