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Strategy & Innovation

Time Isn't Money

Posted by on 01 April 2014
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At first blush, the adage "time is money" makes plenty of sense. After all, we work our 12 hours per day[1], collect our wages for those hours we put in, and then use them to purchase the services of those who put in their own 12-hour days. Many professionals bill by the hour, university students pay for courses by the credit-hour, electric companies charge by the kilowatt-hour, parking garages and meters bill on a temporal basis, and many other services work that way, as well.

The odd thing is: while all hours are equal, some are more equal than others. Sixty minutes of a light-bulb's time don't seem to be worth as much as sixty minutes of a lawyer's time, but of course the cost of providing those sixty light-bulb minutes is far below the expense of providing the sixty lawyer minutes, so the savings are passed on to the client. Economists dissect this in a number of ways (e.g., opportunity costs), and it's worthwhile to see how they do it (example). But, when you read the economics, you eventually discover that it actually doesn't boil down to a time-money trade-off.

It's actually about value.

Naturally, this doesn't surprise you one whit. You know perfectly well that people are willing to pay money in accordance with how much they value something. The part that should surprise you, then, is the fact that the phrase "time is money" doesn't bother you! After all, it's the results of the time put in that really matter, right along with the value of those results. Would your favorite Rembrandt painting be worth any less if it took him only 30 minutes to paint it? If so, it's not likely that putting in another 7.5 hours of face time would have made the piece any better.

Perhaps not, but there is still a correlation between the amount of time put in and the likelihood that the value of the product will increase (at least, up to a point). And, even if Rembrandt took 30 minutes to make a painting, there was still plenty of time spent developing the painting skills and thinking up the ideas. The trouble is, there is no way to determine how much time it took to do the latter two tasks. In fact, thinking time is so unmeasurable that people tend to be unwilling to pay for folks to think, because when people think it doesn't look like they are doing anything.

If you were looking over my shoulder while I was writing this post, you probably would have seen me stop to do some fact checking, maybe a bit of web surfing, and a bit of time spent playing 2048. If you were paying me on a money-for-time basis to write this, you would probably be annoyed at all the time I was "wasting" chasing down ideas that never made it in here, and probably also peeved that I was playing games on your dime (which really just gave me something to do with my hands while I pondered the topic, and look at how that game-playing weaseled its way into the post!). So, maybe you would say that you want to pay me only for the time that I was typing, but I spent way more than 15 minutes designing this post! For one thing, the original post was about three times as long because the idea is from a 90-minute lecture I gave in one of my creativity courses at Drexel (should we count the time I spent preparing the lecture?).

I use myself as an example because it's innocuous, but I've heard four complaints in the last ten days about managers giving dirty looks (and worse) to employees who go off on their own while they are "on the clock" to go take time and think. These managers who penalize people for pondering then wonder why their employees don't do anything innovative. I heard a similar story from a client who approached me about finding ways to make her company's IT department more innovative, but didn't want to free up any of IT's time to think, experiment, and fail. Given the huge emphasis on accountability of late, spending any amount of time during which one appears not to be producing the deliverable can be a serious liability.

Somehow, though, it does not appear to be a liability to some of the firms being most recognized for their success, including 3M, Atlassian, Southwest, and IDEO, all of which have a high tolerance for allowing employees to spend time in which they do not appear to be directly engaged in producing the deliverables for which they are being paid[2,3]. This tolerance is built right into the company culture, and employees know that they have the freedom to ponder, experiment, and fail, and thus they innovate. In doing so, they create value with their time and effort, and that's well worth the money!

(How can you transform your company culture into one that allows people to take the time to think? Stay tuned!)

Orin's Asides

1) I've heard rumors about 8-hour workdays and this thing called a "weekend" -- I guess academia, law, medicine, investment banking, teaching, and consulting never got the memo.
2) I would include Google on this list more readily if they still encouraged 20% time across the board (but they don't [or do they?])
3) And then there's SAS's strategy, which is a workhorse of a different color.

Orin C. Davis is a positive psychology researcher and organizational consultant who focuses on enabling people to do and be their best. His consulting work focuses on maximizing human capital and making workplaces great places to work, and his research focuses on self-actualization, flow, creativity, hypnosis, and mentoring. Dr. Davis is the principal investigator of the Quality of Life Laboratory, the Chief Science Officer of Self Spark. (@DrOrinDavis)

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