Production line hours versus deep expertise

Like many people, I have to fill in my timesheets. Clients and employers like to know how many hours have been spent working for them, and on what tasks, so they can sign off on invoicing and payroll.

The origins of billing by the hour can be traced back to the need for keeping the salaries of lawyers in step with doctors and other similar professions. Measuring productivity by hourly work became the standard for service-based companies and those making products.

But basing value with productivity is fine for predictable, repeatable units of work where the input and output is clear.

But how well does this work when we talk about expertise, innovation, creativity and strategic thinking? I loved this article where Paula Scher talks about paying for outcomes versus process.

Is the process more important than the outcome? Does X number of billable hours guarantee innovation? Does the process guarantee innovation? What happens if the problem is solved ‘too quickly’?

How can it be that you talk to someone and it’s done in a second? But it IS done in a second — it’s done in a second and 34 years.”

I suppose you can mitigate this by charging more for people with deep expertise. They should be able to give you good results for difficult work, and faster than less experienced employees because they have solved similar problems many times.

UX is now often sold as a production line process. “What’s your process?” people ask. Every company has a different flavour, a different approach. But the implication is that you will step through a process, regardless of the problem or domain space, and after long workshops and lots of postits and strategic documents you will get value for money. The outcome is guaranteed.

Agile companies then iterate on producing new features, going through double diamond processes, looking at metrics, and then you end up with a good return on investment. Oh and you get ‘delight’ too.

Of course you need a basic process – I’m a little old school so I like the principles of scientific thinking and experimentation coupled with research:

  1. You are given a problem to solve
  2. You research the problem
  3. You create ideas, hypotheses and experiments
  4. You test these
  5. You refine them with deep craft
  6. You then measure and assess the results
  7. Go back to 1

The other important thing here is that you must work on this with a good team with good client management. One where you all really care about the craft and the outcome.

Sadly I think often we have to step through expected processes where the onus is on the process and the process resembles a waterfall of deliverables. You deliver the workshops, you ‘align’ the stakeholders, then you crank out the product on the factory floor. The outcome is secondary – it will be good enough, but the important thing is that you did the process, you billed the hours and you produced the deliverables.

I’m not saying that we have to stop doing timesheets (altho I’d like less granular ones), and that we should engage in open-ended projects. But I think there is a balance there to be kept where you don’t treat the work purely as an hourly billable endeavour where process guarantees innovation in predictable steps.