«Time-Span» and the «Midlife Crisis» of Organizations


Have you ever heard of Elliott Jaques? If you haven’t, don’t worry, because hardly anyone knows him. But for sure, you know the term «Midlife Crisis», don’t you? Guess now, who has coined the phrase? Bingo!

Elliott Jaques was a a Canadian psychoanalyst who graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and later earned a Ph.D. in social relations at Harvard. During World War II, he moved to England and became a founding member of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in 1946. In 1952, he started developing his management theory, when he was hired by the English Glacier Metal Company to help improve worker involvement. His crucial experience started with the simple question of one of the company’s supervisors. He asked him, why if it was significant that lower-level workers were paid by the hour while executives were paid an annual salary. This question «was the finest gift I’ve ever been given,» Elliot Jaques later told the New York Times: «That’s when I started examining the significance of time.» Jaques delved deeply into what he called the «time frame» of the individual and finally developed his Time-Span theory in 1964:

«Time-Span – length of time a person can effectively work into the future, without direction, using their own discretionary judgment to achieve a specific goal.» (Time-Span Handbook, 1964)

If we have a look at the actual situation in the Assessment Branch or in the Executive Search, Time-Span of candidates is hardly an issue: How can you make sure that the potential CEO is willing to spend the needed time in the organization in order to accomplish the turnaround? How can candidates prove that they are able to overview the requested timeframe for urgent strategic topics? How can the board members make sure when it is time to leave?

Following Jaques’ Time-Span theory, the members of an organization can be divided up according to their individual tasks and capabilities. Suppose, the Time-Span of each candidate refers to the different orbits in the solar system, we can develop a framework of a planetarian typology (WARNING to all readers who are psychologists: the following typology is based on personal experience and NOT testified or validated at all!):


Typus 1: MERCURIANMercurian

ELLIOTT JAQUES: «Workers who are capable of planning and carrying out tasks that take three months to a year are suited to the role of manager

The Mercurian type is often found in the role of a contractor or freelancer. He or she likes project work and jobs to be done within a limited time frame.

Typus 2: MARSIANMarsian

ELLIOTT JAQUES: «A smaller group, capable of one- to two-year assignments, should serve as department leaders

The Marsian type is one of the most common species in organizations all over the world. It’s the kind of corporate guy / girl who is often motivated by extrinsic factors.

JupiterianTypus 3: JUPITERIAN

ELLIOTT JAQUES: «General managers should be able to handle 2- to 5-year projects. Division presidents should fulfill 5- to 10-year strategies.»

The Jupiterian type is at the heart of the organization. He or she are considered to transfer the company’s DNA into the next level. Succession planning plays a key role in order to keep and develop talents at an early stage and to establish long-term connections.

Typus 4: SATURNIANSaturnian

ELLIOTT JAQUES: «Corporate chiefs finally should be able to think in terms of 10 to 20 years.»

The Corporate Saturnian type is hard to find and should be identified at an early stage. Especially in family businesses, he or she plays a critical role in terms of succession planning. The issue of taking over for the next generation has to be truly verified and discussed between parents and children.

Elliott Jaques was convinced that a person’s time frame could change over a career and he developed different methods to measure employees’ capabilities. He also cooperated with various companies to determine the types of judgment needed at different levels of management. His final aim was to create organizational structures that allowed employees to work together effectively. In 1999, he founded the Requisite Organization International Institute in Massachusetts, an educational and research group.

Unlike his introduction of the term «Midlife Crisis» in 1965, where he found abrupt career changes of a number of composers and artists around the age of 35, Elliott Jaques’ astonishing work remained rather undetected. He died on March 8, 2006, in Gloucester, Mass., at the age of 86. As I recently had the opportunity to ask one of the leading experts of organizational culture about Elliott Jaques’ Time-Span theory, the answer was quite comprehensive:

«Dear Daniel— you have asked me a rather large and difficult question because those theories covered a great deal of territory. I personally thought the idea of measuring people’s time span in connection with the scope of their job was a good idea, but I have no idea whether any organization actually did this. (…)

The theory made sense to me but I never saw any research that supported or contradicted it. I do know that many people were familiar with it so I would suppose that there should be some research out there testing it. I also know that he was extensively used as a consultant by the US Army, though I don’t know whether it was around this issue are not. I suppose one could make this a selection issue or a training issue in the sense that one could coach people who were about to be promoted to senior positions to take a longer-range point of view.

Probably the most interesting aspect of his theory is its completeness and thoroughness. From that point of view I found academically interesting, but how it was applied and by whom is a whole other question about which I know very little. In any case he was and is an important organization theorist in a field in which there is very little theory, so making your audience equated with it is a good and important thing. Let me know how your talk goes. Ed»

By the way, the name of the expert is Edgar H. Schein, whom I would like to thank once again for his brillant lucidity in clarifying a theory which has almost vanished in the outer space. Thank you very much, Ed!





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