By Bill Heinrich, Director of Assessment
A traffic jam in Dar es Salaam allowed for a few moments of clarity. In the heat and humidity of coastal Tanzania, I reflected on the last three hours and the next three days. I was in the country to facilitate a series of Human-Centered Design workshops for the Tanzania Partnership Program (TPP), aimed at bringing together faculty from four universities in two countries (Tanzania, U.S.A.). The plan for the conversations was to encourage new approaches to research across disciplines—to make research more interdisciplinary—and to scaffold practices and processes for the involved teams.
In that hot car I thought about leading off the next conversation with a favorite facilitator tool: “Start on time, end on time.” I was searching for a sense of familiarity as I had just finished a meeting that started 30 minutes late and then was allowed to continue for its full duration. Extending the end of a meeting is not a common practice in the U.S. Noticing my own response to the previous meeting helped me realize that my approaches to timing in the next few days would be very pivotal to success. As an outside facilitator, I needed to establish credibility and to be able to step into some piles of uncertainty.
In the next moment though, I found myself reflecting on where my mental models of time were established. My family of origin is a huge part of this, my mom used to adjust the hands on the clock forward to keep my dad on schedule. Being late was not welcome. This practice, nearly subconscious at the time, led me to show up for a job interview a few minutes early. The hiring manager was pinched to fill an unexpected vacancy. Because I had arrived early, he said to me:
“Five minutes early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.”
I wasn’t in a position to disagree with my interviewer, who then checked for my willingness to learn from mistakes and then for my pulse. I got the job that started me on what would become my early career in student affairs in higher education. Timeliness dominated that moment.
The rewards were tangible for my career. The lesson: Show up early and get the job. This approach to timeliness brings a set of privileges—not least of which are my being a member of a dominant cultural group in a wealthy society. Professional credibility in some sectors of U.S. can be made or ruined based on timeliness. When I began to move around the U.S. and travel and work abroad, I had to unlearn most of my attachment to the 5-minutes-early idea.
That hot car in Tanzania had me contemplating pace, time, and culture in Tanzania, and in my own experience of following and leading time-driven experiences. My interest in pragmatism has taught me about first, patience, and next, empathy. The chaos of my cultural immersions offered a lesson: as much as I might value being five minutes early, if I cared about the wrong kind of meeting and not about people, not much else would matter in the long run. To be effective with different people, I have learned to learn their pace and understand the things about which they care.
Empathetic and patient approaches hold true with the interdisciplinary faculty with whom I was working in Tanzania and back in East Lansing. I could focus solely on the idea of timeliness–or be late. People understand either way as long as my work actually guided their collective ability to work together better.
My visit to Tanzania reminded me that Five minutes early is no longer my start and end point. This idea of time only works in a few work cultures; and if I’ve learned anything in my professional life, it’s that cultures—work and otherwise—change slowly. Listening for and learning new rhythms and pace of different people and places was such a freeing experience. Living and operating within and between time, pace, and culture tensions proves to be my favorite skill.