The Doppler Effect and Time Management.

Wikipedia states that:

The Doppler effect (or Doppler shift) is the change in frequency of a wave (or other periodic event) for an observer moving relative to its source. Named after the Austrian physicist Christian Doppler, who proposed it in 1842 in Prague.

Its effect can commonly be heard when a vehicle approaches, passes, and recedes from an observer. The frequency of the vehicle or horn etc. is perceived as higher when received during the approach compared to the emitted frequency, identical at the instant of passing by, and lower when moving away (receding).

When the source of the waves is moving toward the observer, each successive wave crest is emitted from a position closer to the observer than the previous wave. This means that each wave takes slightly less time to reach the observer than the previous wave. Hence, the time between the arrival of successive wave crests at the observer is reduced, causing an increase in the frequency. While they are travelling, the distance between successive wave fronts is reduced, so the waves “bunch together”. Conversely, if the source of waves is moving away from the observer, each wave is emitted from a position farther from the observer than the previous wave, so the arrival time between successive waves is increased, reducing the frequency. The distance between successive wave fronts is then increased, so the waves “spread out”.

So what does this have to do with time management and projects etc……..?

Well I have never met anyone who precisely manages their time. Sounds bad, but unfortunately true. Think about it, we can assign time estimates, we can have an idea of how long tasks will take but we actually can never give a precise time stamp such as that task will take 1:13:18. This is what I mean by precise.

I don’t expect anyone to be able to accomplish this completely but we can improve the situation if we become aware of the “Doppler effect” when we engage in tasks. For example how many of us have said “I can help, you! Should only take a couple of minutes.” Have you ever helped someone with their computer? Those couple of minutes become hours because once engaged in the task at hand, time seems to skew. Unexpected problems pop up, the task was actually more convoluted, complex, complicated than you expected, you expected it to be something else; or you just honestly thought it would take only a short time and seem to get involved and lose track of time when you’re working on something.

I personally tend to do the latter so much so that there is time, and Steve time when I’m working on something because you don’t stop until it’s finished.

So what of the Doppler effect? Well, when not engaged in the task and looking at it from the outside, observing the task calmly in the distance, no stress, no pressure almost serene. Our perspective of the task seems small, like a car in the distance there’s no urgency and it seems small, almost insignificant.

When the task is at hand, the actual work takes on a sense of urgency and true scale. The task takes on its own dimensions, not those predicted or estimated by us but its actual form, warts and all. The task becomes enveloping and the most important thing at this point in time because we are engaged. We lose track of time, schedules can slip and we even chase rainbows down blind alleys because we try to make the task fit into our previously conceived notion of what it was. The end seems so far and the mountain to climb can seem so high that we may tend to procrastinate, avoid and generally hide from the fact that the task was not as it seemed in the beginning.

When the task is approaching the deadline or completion, things seem to move at a quicker pace, the time left on the task or project seems to evaporate. Interestingly the tasks can become more defined and therefore accomplished with greater ease, the skills have been honed or acquired, the nature of the true task has begun to show itself and the end is in sight and happily embraced.  However, this may not be the case.

What is this all about; well we tend to colour our perception of how long things will take, we often underestimate the tasks at hand and therefore the required effort, we can also overestimate (fudge) the timelines and effort involved in a bid to give ourselves a sense of control. Often people will rise to the occasion and work overtime, through lunch and even weekends, when in the belly of the task, but should we then take these efforts and extrapolate that our fudged metrics and greyed opaque time constraints are accurate or based on reality? These problems are universal and we all do it to some degree but projects and tasks are not uniform pieces of work, they exist like plum puddings, patches of smooth consistency with areas of varying densities (raisins, mixed peel etc.), these areas are tasks which are more complex, complicated or just unknown.

So how can we deal with this?

The first thing is to be aware, most projects and tasks are not consistent in effort or degree of difficulty. The ability to examine and explore the project, sift out more difficult tasks and subtasks and prioritise them is beneficial. Striving towards the framing or putting guidelines in place to aid and clarify is also very helpful. And finally the awareness that all projects and tasks are their own “animal”.

Biologically speaking animals and plants are grouped by their similarities and teased out by their differences. Even in a population of a single species there is variation. Surely tasks and projects are no more diverse, each may share similar traits to others but they are never really the same. Even if a carbon copy project was run, the outcomes would vary because the time it was undertaken would be different, the staff, the economic climate etc. etc.… could also vary.

The environment and our position in it, effects perception, this is a simple idea but difficult to enable. The fact in any organisation is that tasks are divided up to help efficiency and productivity. This is a tried and true approach yet when you have a disjoint between groups, all hell can break loose. Imagine a typical company with management, staff and silos responsible for certain activities such as programming, sales, administration etc. you get the idea. Now a disjoint would mean by definition that these silos or groups would not share the same world view as each other, they may be similar but never the same. The focus of each group would be different by the very nature of the organisational structure. Fertile grounds for a Doppler shift, differing perspectives.

Say the management wish to grow the company, sales are motivated to sell by means of commissions (more money for them), the programmers just want to code and be left alone, the administration wants clear view and control, over all and sundry. One organism pulling in different directions. The idea of being a team player is raised on high and touted as a company value and all is well?

The Doppler effect by its very nature means that each group will see their environment differently and although the same entity, perceived differently. The real dangers come from the lack of awareness between silos, the sales reps up sell, management wish to expand and grow and the “grunt work” is done by the people engaged at the coal face, coding etc. They are the best ones to gauge the true nature of the tasks at hand and the capacity for growth. Sure, stretch targets are good, people will often rise to the occasion but if stretched too far or too quickly, errors and catastrophe are around the corner. If the “grunt workers” in the company are working long hours in overtime, through their lunch breaks and on their weekends then the sales reps (on commission) and the management team are not team players, in my opinion.

The differing perspectives (Doppler effects) are distorting the true situation and we all should be aware of these effects.