The Buxton Index, and the Rhythm of Business

‘The Buxton Index of an entity, i.e. person or organization, is defined as the length of the period, measured in years, over which the entity makes its plans.’

I came across the ‘Buxton Index’ via this Shane Parrish podcast with Patrick Collison founder of Stripe (which is really worth a listen). Seemingly originated by Professor John Buxton at Warwick University, and brought to wider attention by its use in this essay on the strengths of the academic enterprise by pioneering computer scientist Edsger W Dijkstra, the index is not a widely-known business concept but it is an interesting one. The idea of the index is that entities have different planning horizons that they are fundamentally working towards (so for a politician who is seeking re-election it may be four years but for a manager striving to reach a quarterly target it will be much shorter) and that when co-operation is required between entities operating to very different Buxton indices tensions can arise. 

In an era when horizontal collaboration within organisations and across entities is critical for advantage and adaptability, it’s an idea that has perhaps taken on a new level of significance. Poor cross-functional working slows organisations down, wastes time and does not support genuinely customer-centric ways of working. Some functions within an organisation may be working for longer-term survival and gain (for example on things like procurement or data security), others may be needing to make decisions faster. The tensions that can arise from this difference can act as a drag on agility and quick decision-making, particularly when unacknowledged. Better appreciation of the differences can lead to a deeper understanding of motivations and so aid better collaboration.

In the book I used Stewart Brand’s pace layering concept to describe the difference in rates of change involved in a transformation process – simply put some things (like customer needs and changes to tactics and workflows) are likely to change much quicker than others (like the culture or vision of an organisation). Being aware of the rate of change, and also achieving the right balance between comfort and urgency for people, makes change a lot more productive and achievable.

But pace-layering also speaks to another under-appreciated tension. As well as the different planning horizons that various entities and areas of the business work to, we need to be aware of the different operating rhythms that characterise discrete functions and teams. Difficulties arise when the operating cycles (annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly) that teams work to are different or even conflicting. One team for example wants to move fast but are dependent on another team that operates at a much slower rhythm so it slows them down. This becomes particularly important when you are introducing agile ways of working at scale to a business, where teams operating at a faster tempo are bumping up against others that are aligned to longer cycles or waterfall approaches. It’s no good trying to get rapid customer feedback on a feature that you’ve developed if the release cycle means that customers won’t see it for another six weeks. An under-appreciation of rhythm means that dependencies can quickly become blockers. Greater foresight and flexibility in processes and decision-making can mean that necessary but different ways of working can accommodate different demands better.

So we ignore the rhythms of a business at our peril. Perhaps I should call this Perkin index?

‘The Perkin index of an entity i.e. person, team or organisation is defined as the tempo, measured in time for single operating cycle, at which the entity works’

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