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Know and avoid “time bankruptcy.”

Time bankruptcy results from the deliberate over-commitment of core resources. 

          I created the term “time bankruptcy” almost thirty years ago when the computer software business was young, and I was a software developer building a young company based upon quality first.  Asked to speak at a number of software industry events, I found my voice and immediate audience understanding as I described variants of the following problem to my audience. The insight became clearer as I was hired again and again to pick up the pieces of failed programming efforts by other software companies in this then young industry.

          A developer would take on a new customer, customize programs as needed, and install perhaps an 80% completed system upon the customer’s brand new minicomputer system.  The customer would pay for all or at least 90% of the system, perhaps holding back a retainer awaiting completion.  Burning through the payment and needing more to cover fixed overhead, the developer would do the same for the next 80% customer, moving on to the third.  About that time, the first would call asking for completion of programming or training, firmly but politely.  The fourth installation was interrupted as the first customer suggested that he would stop giving glowing recommendations for the vendor, insisting upon a completion date, while the second customer interrupted with its first call for completion.  By the fifth or sixth (who keeps count for these stories?), the first threatens suit, the second becomes demanding and the third makes that expected call for a completion date.  So the vendor stops work on the newest installation to complete earlier installations.  Revenues dry up while overhead continues to burn though the developer’s pockets.  It’s a classic case of time bankruptcy.  The developer deliberately overcommitted his prime or core resources (in this case his personal time) leading to a loss of income and reputation that it could not recover.

[Email readers continue here…] The same story could be constructed for any company selecting a limited number of test customers for a new product. Select too many, and pay too little attention to each.  Commit all of your core resources to solving the resulting problem, and new work stops.  Time bankruptcy. Not a pretty sight, and completely avoidable.

          Be aware of this trap.  No-one but yourself can be blamed for allowing core resources to be overcommitted, even if by subordinates.  That’s because you now know the term and the impact of such an error in judgment, and understand that the simple but important remedy is to slow the commitment of those most critical resources to the front lines.

  • hah perhaps we need a new report, the time version of Cash Flow….Time Flow.

  • Rick Munson

    Dave very well said!!! If one of our goals is to “truly exceed customer expectations”, “time bankruptcy” is a land mine keeping us from reaching that goal. That being said, it is vital that customer expectations (the software delverable and “the goal”) are clearly defined in writing and signed off at the start of the project. The “formula for success” and the “end in mind” is therby established by both supplier and customer.

    Therefore, when we deliver, on time or ahead of time, the goal will be accomplished. That leaves us time to polish the hub caps, and provide a “no charge” pair of sunglasses on the dashboard. The end result? Customer expectations are exceeded and we have time to serve and play with our family and community.

    In servitude,


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