On the Buxton Index

How far into the future do you plan?

There doesn’t seem to be a primary source for this other than a 1994 transcript of a lecture by Dutch computer scientist E.W. Dijkstra (The strengths of the academic enterprise), who defines the Buxton Index as follows (highlights mine):

The Buxton Index, so named after its inventor, Professor John Buxton, at the time at Warwick University. 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.

Dijkstra goes on to give a few examples: For a grocery shop that period of planning might be half a year, for a true Christian it would be eternity, for most other entities something in between. To make it more concrete, he names politicians (4 years, i.e. one election cycle, for corporate management it might be quarterly reports, etc.)

Now, that’s all good, but you might ask so what? Back to Dijkstra (highlights mine):

The Buxton Index is an important concept because close co-operation between entities with very different Buxton Indices invariably fails and leads to moral complaints about the partner. The party with the smaller Buxton Index is accused of being superficial and short-sighted, while the party with the larger Buxton Index is accused of neglect of duty, of backing out of its responsibility, of freewheeling, etc.. In addition, each party accuses the other one of being stupid.** The great advantage of the Buxton Index is that, as a simple numerical notion, it is morally neutral and lifts the difference above the plane of moral concerns.*

The key notion here for me is that different Buxton Indices invariably lead to moral complaints. We all know the dynamic. Just look at the constant debate raging around fighting climate change vs sustaining economic growth. (A false dichotomy in my view, but that’s for another day.)

Being aware that some organizations (or systems, if you want to get a little theoretical) operate on a different time scale than yourself or your own organization can help take the perceived moral failing out of the equation. It helps us see the world a little more on its own terms, rather than through our own biases.

I find the Buxton Index to be a tremendously helpful tool. Being aware and — if possible — explicit about the time horizon we work on, enables us to make better judgement calls, facilitate better collaboration, be more intentional about our course of action vis-a-vis others’ course of action.

It’s also useful to note that even an organization or individual can operate on different Buxton Indices depending on the context of their planning. For example, in my client work I tend to look at the 12-24 month horizon simply because laying the groundwork for change takes some time, but in order to see my suggestions through to implementation I cannot operate over longer time spans. “Internally,” in my own planning as an independent consultant, I operate closer to a 12 month cycle.

Planning for a shorter timeframe X doesn’t mean that an organization cannot have longer-term goals, of course. But once these goals are operationalized into strategy and concrete steps — i.e. the actual planning — that time frame necessarily shrinks.

So yeah, the Buxton Index. I can’t believe I never wrote about this before, it’s a tool I use all the time. You might find it helpful, too.