Portion of machine floor, Pullman Industrial Complex [PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, HAER, REPRODUCTION NUMBER IL-5]
Portion of machine floor, Pullman Industrial Complex [PHOTO: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS, PRINTS & PHOTOGRAPHS DIVISION, HAER, REPRODUCTION NUMBER IL-5]

Time over for the timesheet?

Why don’t we pay for value in the way it is generated rather than using a legacy system that isn’t fit for purpose?

There must be a raft of research on this [citations welcome], but I’m constantly bewildered by the insistence of certain organisations that continue to ‘require’ hourly timesheets.

This is something I’ve felt for a long time but have been prompted to write after yet another ask from an organisation who is introducing hourly timesheet reporting as a process — in an innovation programme.

Provocation

Hour-based timesheets are a legacy of the industrial revolution when we were trying to measure the efficiency of making an object: they are broadly meaningless for the knowledge economy.

More damaging is that trying to optimise on ‘time spent’ on thinking or doing things doesn’t drive any of the right behaviours for innovation. Do we want to drive behaviours towards 5 hours meetings to keep everyone busy, or to efficient, impact-based 30 minute, decisions-making sessions with better prep?

Instead, we should focus the people doing the work on three things:

1. Quality of outcomes

2. Total budget

3. Deadlines

Of course, we all need confidence that the money we spend is linked with value. However, over the last 20 years I’ve been running businesses, ‘time spent’ never equates to ‘value’. Instead, the biggest driver to impact are the three points above.

To get to a measure that we can use to inform planning and budgeting, we should instead allocate effort on a ‘nearest 10%’ basis rather than requiring detailed per-hour timesheets (e.g. I spent 20% of my effort on problem A).

I believe this process is appropriate for knowledge-based work and particularly relevant when trying to nurture an environment of innovation, freedom to explore and focus, ultimately, on delivering the best quality of work.

Most organisations (both the suppliers and the clients, whether large multinational organisations and in many cases the grant funders themselves) simply ‘fudge’ the current systems to ‘make it work’ but I wonder if we don’t undermine our own innovation (and credibility, given this is ultimately about trust) in the process? We want to assess value, not time spent.

Why don’t we pay for value in the way it is generated rather than using a legacy system that isn’t fit for purpose?

Addenda: I was recently asked “but how do you know if people have done the work?”. Firstly, ‘thinking’ is not something that gets switched on/off. Secondly, on deliverables and quality of outcomes against a contract.

My measure of success in ‘doing’ the work is that they are ‘not fired’.

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