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It was the Right Place but it was the Wrong Time

Updated Wednesday 9th March 2011

Is being in the right place but at the wrong time a factor in business success or failure, asks Leslie Budd.

The author Lawrence Durrell wrote The Alexandria Quartet of which the first book, Justine, was published in 1957. Set in the Egypt’s second city during the 1930s and 40s, the series explores the subject of love, but its central narrative is about relativity and chronology.

It appears to be Durrell’s main thesis that disparities in latitude or longitude and measures of time will result in a completely different human experience. Is it particular to business or is Durrell’s hypothesis a universal for the human condition? Is being in the wrong place but the right time a factor in business success or failure?

This is not the question that the great American singer and musician Dr John asked when he sang one of his most famous songs, Right Place Wrong Time, but perhaps it should be the anthem for many companies:

I been in the right place

But it must have been the wrong time

I’d have said the right thing

But I must have used the wrong line

I’d a took the right road

But I must have took a wrong turn

Would have made the right move

But I made it at the wrong time

I been on the right road

But I must have used the wrong car

My head was in a good place

And I wonder what it’s bad for

Timing is crucial for business even when management gets it wrong. Place and awareness of what is gong on in other locales is also crucial. You may only serve the domestic market, but if you are reliant on stable international commodity prices or continuity of global supply chains, any shock to these assumptions may result in failure.

For fast high street branded food outlets, whether Beyonce is a judge on a TV talent(less) show may be more important than the London Stock Exchange’s electronic trading platform going belly up.

But, if wheat prices goes through the roof because El Niño rages in the wrong pace at the wrong time, and if the share prices of a global ICT company gets short-circuited, both types of company face not arriving at where they want to be. So, just because you have a local focus does not mean that you should not have a global perspective.

Longitude west of Greenwich Creative commons image Icon treehouse1977 under CC-BY-SA under Creative-Commons license

The issue of timing and the impact of world events was amply demonstrated by the financial crisis which began in late 2007 in the US. At the time the political leadership of France and Germany, for example, declared that this was a crisis rooted in the Angle-Saxon form of capitalism.

By the time that the credit crunch turned into a global recession in 2008, French and German banks were shown to be just as exposed to the same grifting ‘house of cards’. It became clear that risk management models could not anticipate the effects of the uncertainty caused by the shock to the system.

Similarly, in regard to the sovereign debt crisis that followed the financial one, and the threats to the euro system, you would have thought that hubris (false pride) was a German word and that schadenfreude (getting pleasure from others misfortune) was a Greek one. That is, the relative impact on the German and Greek economies depends on when and where their citizens are in the economic cycle.

By not being a member of the euro has meant the British economy has escaped some of the worst aspects of the aftermath in the peripheral economies of the European Union. But, much of this has to do with the different timing of the economic cycle and the institutional structure of the housing and credit markets in the UK.

Many British commentators rejoiced in their schadenfreude over the difficulties of their neighbours without realising that if the euro zone catches a cold UK exports get influenza and the timing and length of recovery may differ.

The crisis also exposed business schools around the world and led many to develop angst over why their curricula and alumni may have contributed to the financial crisis and that their perspectives were insufficiently global: wrong place and wrong time. This internal focus exposes these institutions to be accused of being insufficiently concentrated on the external market place and that their missions belong to an earlier time.

Rather then being masters and mistresses of the universe, their research has been shown, in some accounts, to not even be servants and handmaidens of business. This Masters in Business Administration (MBA) industry now appears to be missing basic additionality.

The impact of unexpected events on time and place is difficult to anticipate and is always a lagging experience. The apparently natural tendency to look for the best in things has been seen in the commentary about the current Arab Spring. But, many public observers would do well to read Durrell’s opus, as the optimism of events in Tunisia and Egypt has given way to pessimism in Libya.

It is fifteen years since the Barcelona Declaration was promulgated, whose objective was to integrate the Maghreb countries better into the economic development of the European Union with mutual benefits for both. But with few exceptions, EU-based businesses have looked to the East rather than the South for serving and expanding their markets, with all the current consequences. For the EU in 1996, the Maghreb was the right pace but the timing of rapid growth in Asia has subsequently made it the wrong time.

Capitalism always conquers time and space, but where business is and when it is doing it will vary. In trying to make sense of the impact of the time and place, perhaps managements should take note of the Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci’s famous quote: “Pessimism of the spirit; optimism of the will”.

 

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