I have a question for you: Why do you work? Think about it for a few seconds.
I’ll hypothesize that your answer includes these two components: desire and a paycheck. In an ideal world, we would be absolutely passionate about what we do and we would get paid a huge amount of money to do it. While there are those people out there, most of us seek to find the right balance between those two components. Sometimes we get paid a lot for something we’re not keen on. Sometimes we get paid little for something we love. The ideal is that we evaluate our career transactions, and we have an intentional reason to do what we do.
For this ratio of passion and cash, it represents the value that we place on our time. This balancing effort is probably subconscious for most people until they reach a certain level of experience where a desire to make intentional decisions arises [in other words, you get old enough to realize that we’re mortal, and we only get to visit each minute we experience once]. Each of us will have our own balance of this ratio, depending on our goals and needs and whether our current stage of life has convinced us to put more emphasis on one or the other.
So… this post is about the “freedom of time”… and assessing whether we own our time, or another entity does. This comes out of conversation #5 of 100 Conversations, and has grounding within numerous other interactions I’ve had with peers. [and I do have to say… choosing one topic out of these conversations is a challenge]
Since this blog is supposed to focus on the business of design, I will look at how this concept of “freedom of time” relates to what we do. The simplest parallels area: a) when we put passion first and we volunteer our skills on pro bono projects that we are passionate about, or b) when we work on a “bread and butter” project where it’s about paying the bills. One is love with no cash, and the other is cash with no love. (I’m being dramatic with this. We are lucky that we do find goodness in our bread and butter work).
Ideally in any project, it provides us with a balance of love and cash. For project management, this is the ideal because it means that we have happiness at the project level that brings in typical income. This contributes to good morale, for us and staff.
When we examine multiple projects, it is more likely that they provide a range of levels of emphasis in the ratio. Some will provide more satisfaction, and some will provide more cash. This can start to skew morale because we open ourselves to feeling imbalanced. While morale averages out between projects, the more difficult challenges do tend to impose more mental weight than the good ones can offset.
The ‘business’ issue in this discussion is when difficult projects lose money. There is no benefit within the ratio; the good does not balance the bad. These are the projects where we say things like:
- If I wanted to work for free, I’d do pro bono and have it be my choice.
- Well, at least our other projects are profitable and make us happy.
- This client will have better projects in the future. We’re getting in the door.
- Doh! I did it again.
The Bad Projects
Within your business life, you’ve probably run into the concept where people make generalizations that a small portion of your business causes you most of your pain. This is normally followed with the advice that we should fire some of our clients. I’ll bet your reaction is “while it makes sense, it wouldn’t work for me.” The theory is easy to understand, but our perception of reality complicates it. Let’s quantify a bad project as one that loses money and is more difficult than it should be. Conversely, a good project has a nice client and nice profit.
Have I ever “fired” a client? No. Have I ever had a small wish that someone might not have another future project they want me on? Yes. I’m in a small market, and my coping mechanism is that I can always try to manage the project better… but saying “No” potentially severs a relationship. In my market, the theory is that relationships lead to other relationships.
This Makes No Sense
So in effect, there are times where I know I am sacrificing my freedom of time in that I will need to expend a disproportionate amount of energy compared with the commensurate benefit of profit. This is personally a really bad decision, but I’ve somehow justified it as a long-term business strategy within my market. So… just call me the (cynical) optimist, “Maybe they’ll be better next time!! Yeay!”
How Bad Is It?
I think we develop processes to minimize the effect of these projects on our companies, and our potential to break even or maybe turn a profit. See one of my blog posts about “Managing from Behind”. While I’ve developed personal and business coping mechanisms, I’m unsure as to whether this is worth it or not. It takes a lot of energy to not only control these situations, but to also work with (and buffer) staff to guide and protect them, and their morale. BUT… the reality is that life throws us curve balls. From a mentoring perspective, difficult situations provide a fantastic way to illustrate how best to work when we’re under pressure. It puts much of what we do into a great context. The context of: the skills we’re learning now will serve us well every day, and will prepare us for when we encounter the next difficult time. In other words… if we can deal with this difficulty, the normal stuff becomes easier.
And, absorbing and redirecting these kind of things is part of my job. I own the company. I’m the guy responsible to fix things. I need these skills.
Back to Freedom of Time
The concept I introduced at the beginning of this post still holds true. We should be intentional about how we choose to spend our time. If you’re intentional about it, then the negative consequences don’t sneak up on you and surprise you. You can actively manage them. You can try to prepare.
So… I find myself within what is probably our cultural norm: freedom of time is a long-term game. I’m sacrificing some of my freedom of time now in order to increase it in the future. Is that a good idea? Do I think it’s a good idea now that I’ve thought about it? Let’s talk about that over a drink.
The alternative? Make your decision… only choose the good clients… fire clients that don’t match your freedom of time criteria. If your discipline and market supports that, you could have a good thing going.
This is one of those posts that focuses on trying to reassure myself that I’m not completely crazy. Maybe it will do the same for you. So many management lessons point to these absolutes that sound great, but are hard to apply. They drive us a little crazy because we can’t reach them. Let’s just learn from them and try to be a bit more intentional. The intent of the posts I’ve written (and the ones I will write) relate to managing the craziness. If all of our clients were easy, then this blog wouldn’t be needed. I want to feel like my existence is a normal one. Hug me.