Thursday, October 16, 2014

Don't Kill Time

If you dig holes for a living, you know how many holes you have dug. Your team knows how many holes you have dug. Your boss knows how many holes you have dug. As machines replace more and more jobs that don't require creativity, it becomes harder to tell what value someone is adding. Unless there is trust and incentives are aligned, a job can quickly become an exercise in justifying your existence. Instead of doing your job, you spend a lot of time explaining why you are doing your job, how you are doing your job, what the alternatives are, and predicting how long your job will take to get done. Virgina Postrel talks about the difficulty people have in articulating things in 'The Future And Its Enemies' and makes a strong case for pushing decision making down to the front lines. Allowing people to make decisions where they have the knowledge to do so.


Even then there is a problem if the value add doesn't have an explicit output. Knowledge and creativity often falls into this category. Capitalism helps out through price discovery. People pay for goods and services. What you make less what it cost is the value you added. This strips away the effort that was put in, the years of training, and the sacrifices made. The customer decides based on what they want and the alternatives they have. It is an argument for keeping things small, because it doesn't solve the problem if there are multiple people giving input. Even if the pie reflects how much value has been added, how do you cut it up? You get back to a subjective decision. It also doesn't solve the problem when the 'real price' will only be discovered a long time into the future.

This leads to two challenges. The first is sometimes we shift to doing and justifying jobs with clear obvious outcomes that can be priced or jobs with a good story that customers are willing to pay for, not necessarily those jobs with the most value add. The second problem is it rewards being busy. The easiest measures of  what something should cost are how much you spent and how much time you spent. These are awful measures of what something is actually worth, but they are easy. Slowly but surely the easiest way to communicate the value you are adding is to put in long hours.

There is little reward for doing things in a short space of time. It then appears easy. There is little reward for doing things that last. It then leaves no further work to do. When the value isn't explicit, we fall back on pricing based on the story and that is when things get dangerous. I think we undervalue our time and we overspecialise. We learn how to do something and the idea that what we do may become redundant or that we might finish the job is a huge incentive to 'create work'. Witness regulation that creates work for lawyers, actuaries, accountants and compliance officers. I would venture that if their time could somehow be correctly valued and their skills weren't so narrowly specified we could free up a lot of creative capacity.

Perhaps a way of solving this starts with learning to learn. We often define ourselves by the work we can do. The more we expand that definition, perhaps the more we will value our time and the less prepared we will be to kill it. The carcases of time are easy to count, but they should be very expensive.


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