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Outcomes not hours

I worked on a project a number of years back, that was huge, worth millions of dollars, spanned a number of years and was supposed to deliver a massive transformation, but in the end, fell well short of it’s lofty goals. It was disheartening to see it happen and when I reflect on this, I can say that the major contributor to the failure was a misalignment of objectives between the client and the vendor. In setting up Harper Stone, we have used this experience to help craft the way operate, we are committed to not repeating this same experience with our own clients.

In many vendors, the performance of a team is tracked by measuring billable hours. Billable hours are selected for lots of reasons; they tie directly to the financial performance of the organisation for example, and often just because billable hours are simple and easy to track. Monitoring billable hours allows the operational performance to be tracked on a regular basis, even down to the individual day which is great for managers. The downside of tracking billable hours is that it can quickly establish a misalignment in goals between the organisation and their clients, just as was the case in that massive transformation project. When tracking billable hours, the individual team members are required to account for their time, each hour and in some businesses every minute. Externally however, the client doesn’t care about billable hours, they are concerned about the generation of business outcomes, be it the delivery of new capabilities, improvements in efficiency or greater quality experiences for their clients which can lead to increased customer satisfaction.

The use of KPI’s is essential to driving improvements in a business, the downside of selecting the wrong KPI’s can be equally effective at driving performance degradation. People in general are good at understanding how to modify their behaviour to achieve goals that are clearly articulated, that is why KPI’s work in the first place. So when an individual KPI is 7.5 billable hours in a day, their main priority is going to be recording that 7.5hrs. Secondary to that is what work they do, what that work achieves or how efficiently they use their time. This is exactly the situation that I have seen happen in many larger companies and many digital agencies. The workforce goals become disconnected from their client goals.

One of the things I enjoy about Harper Stone is getting to work hands on with our clients. After running a large business for the last five years, I love working with a range of businesses to improve an element of their operation. Right from the onset, we establish the objectives of the project in terms of business outcomes for our client. We don’t just update the look of the website for example, we increase the number of enquiries generated from this channel, we track the pages that our users visit and identify the content that most often causes them to visit the contact details page. We don’t just deliver search in a customer portal, we increase customer self service and case deflection by solving their issues without them needing to submit a support ticket.

I know that this is easier to achieve the smaller an organisation is, that’s true. A wise man once said that when a company has to start setting “policy” then it’s the beginning of the end. I can’t agree more. If your team aren’t smart enough or committed enough to not need a policy, then are they the people that are going to deliver above and beyond for your client? This is one of the reasons that smaller companies are often better to work with than larger ones. In a smaller company, you are likely to have more experienced staff allocated to a project rather than a mix of a senior to plan and monitor and a number of more junior staff to actually do the work, you often have the founders with their wide experience, as well as the experience of operating their own business working directly on your projects. A smaller company is also hungry, hungry for your business and relying on your project and your experience working with them, to serve as a reference for their next prospective client. They don’t have the same level of complacency and won’t take your business for granted. They also don’t have the overheads of large teams, layers of management and heavy infrastructure overheads that are all going to contribute to the cost of a client’s project.

At Harper Stone we are about outcomes not about hours. That’s why I haven’t completed a timesheet since we started. In fact, nobody in Harper Stone has a timesheet, we don’t track the hours on a project, we just do what it takes for our projects to be successful. That means we meet with our clients often, we come in and discuss ideas on the direction, we don’t do a “design reveal” and ask for one round of changes, we help you with your content if you are struggling, we give you advice on launching your new project and we care enough to check in after launch to ensure that we are actually achieving the outcome that we planned at the outset.

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