A Post On, Egads, Effort

images-5Regular readers of this space will know I am not a fan of the cult of efficiency that enraptures most businesses today. In my project management classes I stress that duration is the more important metric both the the professional and the customer.

That said, I would like to update the idea of comparative advantage as originally put forward by economist David Ricardo, but updated for the knowledge worker, especially the small firm. This idea seems to be about efficiency, but if one looks deeper, one will see that it is truly about effectiveness.

Adam Able is the owner/operator of a small IT consulting firm. Adam has been working in his industry for over 20 years and has a wealth of knowledge and domain expertise with the products with which he works. Because of this Adam, can slam out a new customized report in an average of two hours. He can also do an average migration of data in one hour.

Igor Egit is relatively new his profession; he has been at it a little over a year. Igor is not the brightest bulb in the drawer. On average it takes him three hours to deliver a new custom report, 50 percent more than Adam. While Igor does not suck at reports, he is a migration moron and it takes him four hours to develop a workable data migration, 400 percent longer than Adam.

This table shows the comparison.

  Igor Adam
Report 3 2
Migration 4 1
Total 7 3


If each does one report and one migration the total is 10 hours and the yield is two reports and two migrations.

Comparative advantage says that while Adam is better at both, and could theoretically do it himself in six hours, he is better off specializing in migrations and allowing Igor to do the reports, even though this runs counter to the idea of efficiency.

This table demonstrates the results of specialization.

Igor Adam
3 1
3 1
6 2


Notice again, that the yield is still two reports and two migrations, however, each received an hour of additional discretionary time. In addition, the total effort decreased to eight hours.

Now, some may argue that from an efficiency standpoint, it would be better to have Adam do both, since the total would be six hours not eight. What would that do to Adam’s leisure time? It would reduce it by four hours.

Looked at in this light, we can see that the question is: does it make sense for Adam to trade four hours of discretionary time in exchange for two reports from Igor. This is a value tradeoff that only Adam (and in a sense Igor) can make.

The trap is set, however, if we introduce the idea of a billable time rate to this example. Since it is unlikely that Adam’s rate would be three times that of Igor’s. Adam’s customers will either a) insist that they pay a reduced rate for Igor, or worse, b) insist that Adam himself do the work.

The traps is sprung! Adam, in the name of good service, will acquiesce to the customer. Likely, Igor will be out of a job; and Adam will miss more Little League games.

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