Europe is the place where two of the most powerful economic forces shaping our times are coming together painfully: the shift of economic gravity to the East and the deleveraging taking place in developed economies amid slow growth. Many see the response of European Union leaders to these economic problems as too slow and are already talking about a lost decade.

Yet, despite all this gloom, I see many young entrepreneurs in Europe building a new foundation on something extremely valuable in the European cultural and intellectual heritage. Many companies could take inspiration from it. I am referring to the relationship that we have with the concept of time in economic production. And it is not the siesta or the meagre 32-hour work week.

I first sensed it when I was around 10 years old and we were hiking in the Swiss Alps with our family. We stumbled upon a stable of goats high up in the mountains. There was a centuries old wooden shaft in the middle of a beautiful mountain field, straight from the opening scenes of The Sound of Music. Inside it, a gentleman was making goat cheese. Supported by the soft bellowing of his animals and the bells of cows, under clear blue skies, amid fragrant green grasslands that were organic by default and the cleanest air one could imagine, he was working on his craft, distracted by nothing. This was not fast mass-production. But his produce was stacking up on a shelf: cheese that tasted like a blessing and which he sold in the village down in the valley to sustain his living.

The delight (or value) he created for his customers was great. His cheese was not cheap, but it was justified by its special quality. He took no shortcuts, did not fake a fancy brand, had no sleek marketing story. But he charged a premium for an outstanding product. Why? Because he worked on a different time concept than most brands and his customers knew it. Fortunately, I see many young European entrepreneurs following it—from the finest groceries, to bike makers, design firms, hoteliers or ice-cream makers across the continent.

This time concept is best illustrated through the views of the ancient Greeks, who famously had two concepts of time: Kairos and Chronos. Chronos was the god keeper of linear time (the word chronological stems from his name). He governed the flow of time from past to present and future. Time from A to B. Time as a measurable quantity. Aligning with Chronos in today’s terms means to be fast, efficient and punctual. Kairos, on the other hand, was the god of what the Greeks called the opportune time, the right moment. To be aligned with Kairos meant the ability to wait, to know the proper sequencing of things and to cast the iron when it is hot. Kairos time is when growth happens, when development takes place. It is the qualitative dimension of time.

Europeans are generally good at managing Chronos time. They value time. They see their time as limited (not infinite) and respect the time of others. So meetings generally start and end at the agreed chronological moment. People wake up on time, leave on time, arrive on time, finish on time. Indians jokingly evoke the Indian Standard Time when pointing out their own lack of mastery of Chronos time.

Perhaps more importantly, however, is that deeply embedded in European manufacturing traditions is a great mastery of Kairos time as well—displayed by our cheese maker. This, I believe, stems from a Medieval institution called guilds. Starting around the 10th century, these were associations of craftsmen and merchants who controlled a particular profession or trade in a town. They protected their members through privileges and rights. They protected their customers because they guaranteed quality.

Successful guilds were built around a deep respect for Kairos time in their craft, based on a recognition of the all importance of merit. This manifested in a lifelong training programme where one started as an apprentice and then, while learning, moved to become a craftsman, a journeyman, a master and then a grandmaster. This journey would take years, but was not guided by Chronos time. After seven years, one could still produce crappy work if one lacked talent or dedication. Advancement was guided by Kairos time. For centuries, city life in Europe was influenced by the guilds and this is how Kairos got deeply embedded in European cultural traditions, and education and production systems.

The secret of Kairos time, I believe, lies in the quality of the mental attention that is paid to the fabricating of all the components of a product or service and all the steps of the process of integrating them into the final product. To produce a cup of coffee, a mobile phone, an outstanding meal, a delightful service, a reliable car part, a perfect bag of rice, requires mastery of Kairos time combined with mastery of Chronos time.

To distinguish between these two concepts of time, and to master the art of combining and balancing them is an often neglected key to success for any business. Most companies are only focused on Chronos. They seek to reach the future faster, hope to earn gratification instantly, live from quarter to quarter. They disregard Kairos. And they are left with less in the long run. Sustainable brands can only be created and sustained when balancing both concepts of time.

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.

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