Apparently lawyers are some of the glummest groups of professionals out there! One of the reasons for this is the very nature of their profession; it’s usually a “zero-sum” game, if somebody wins someone else loses (and in extreme cases loses their life). Another theory, put forward by Dan Pink in his book Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is that lawyers have to deal with one of the most “autonomy crushing mechanisms imaginable – the billable hour”. Lawyers have to keep careful track of every hour they spend, sometime to the level of granularity of six minute time chunks, so they can bill their time to the correct client. As a result their focus inevitably shifts to from the quality of the work they do (their output) to how they measure that work (its input). Essentially a lawyers reward comes from time, the more hours they bill, the higher their (or their legal practices) income. In today’s world it is hard to think of a worse way to ensure people do high quality and creative work than making them fill in a timesheet detailing everything they do.
Unfortunately the concept of the billable hour is now firmly embedded into other professions, including the one I work in, IT consulting. As IT companies have moved from selling hardware to software that runs on that hardware and then to providing consulting services to build systems made up of hardware and software they have had to look for different ways of charging for what they do. Unfortunately they have taken the easy option of the billable hour, something that the company accountants can easily measure and penalise people for if they don’t achieve their billable hours every week, month or year.
The problem with this of course is that innovation and creativity does not come in six minute chunks. Imagine if the inventors of some of the most innovative software architecture (Tim Berners-Lee’s world-wide web or Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook) had to bill their time. When such people wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea that would solve their clients business problem what’s the first thing they reach for: a notebook to record the idea before its gone or a spreadsheet to record their time so they can bill it to the client!
As Dan Pink says, the billable hour is, or should be, a relic of the old economy where routine tasks (putting doors on cars, sewing designer jeans or putting widgets into boxes) had tight coupling between how much effort goes in and the work that comes out. In the old economy where a days work equaled a days pay and you were a day laborer you essentially sold out to the highest bidder. Isn’t what we do worth more than that? As Seth Godin points out “the moment you are willing to sell your time for money is the moment you cease to be the artist you’re capable of being”.
But what’s the alternative? Clearly IT consulting firms need to be able to charge clients for their work; they’re not charities after all. Here are my thoughts on alternatives to the tyranny of the timesheet which enable the art and creativity in building IT systems to flourish.
- Start with the assumption that most people want to do good work and incentivise them on the work products they create rather than the work inputs (time recorded).
- Recognise that creativity does not fit nicely into a 9 – 5 day. It can happen at any time. Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) has his most creative time between 5am and 9am so is just finishing his work when the rest of us are starting. Creative people need to be allowed to work when they are at their most creative, not when company accountants say they should.
- When charging clients for work agree on what will be delivered by when and then build the right team to deliver (a team of shippers not time keepers). Of course this gives company lawyers a nightmare because they get involved in endless tangles with clients about what constitutes a deliverable and when it is complete (or not). Maybe giving lawyers a creative problem to solve will cheer them up though.
- Give people time-out to do their own thing and just see what happens. Google famously give their employees 20% time where they are allowed to spend a day working on their own projects. A number of google applications (including gmail) were invented by people doing their own thing.
- Allow people to spend time having interactions outside their immediate work groups (and preferably outside their company). Innovative ideas come from many sources and people should be allowed to discover as many new sources as possible. If someone wants to spend half-a-day walking round an art gallery rather than sitting at their desk, why not? Frank Gehry allegedly got his idea for the shape of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao from Picasso’s cubist paintings.
In the new economy, the conceptual age where creativity and versatilism is the order of the day the timesheet should be firmly assigned to the shredder and people should be treated as innovaters not just cogs in the big corporate machine.