the professional hitman

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Considering the amount I get paid for consulting, the expectations are usually quite low. I tend to work in project-based roles.  What does that mean?  I tend to put it this way:  some jobs are task-based; for example, a factory worker who puts the windshield in a car on the assembly line.  The car moves on, and the factory worker puts the next windshield in – the job is only done once the assembly line shuts down for the day.  A project-based job, though, would be more like someone who builds the car by himself – when one car is done, the job is done.

What’s strange about project-based work is that most companies still treat it like task-based work.
I can understand a salary or an hourly wage for task-based work.  You’re paid X dollars to sit in a chair in your cube and do your task or tasks.  If the task is held up elsewhere – the guy in accounting hasn’t signed off yet – you can’t do your task, but you are expected to be around once it’s ready.  Project-based work may be held up, too, but the idea is that you’re supposed to deliver a completed project as soon as you can.  If it’s going to take 500 hours, fine.  If it’s going to take 8, fine.  But the project is not about attendance.

Teaching is a good example of task-based work, too. Teachers can’t really ‘hurry up’ their ‘projects’ (students).  The work of a teacher is completed over a 9-month period (at least in the States).  A home-builder, on the other hand, just needs to build the home.  The model ought to be a salary for a teacher, and a fixed fee for the builder.  If the builder can get his job done more quickly or efficiently, he makes more money, because he can go build other homes.

I work on projects. I have a client, I audit the client (or do something similar) and issue a report.  I’ve often wondered if I suddenly asked clients for a fixed fee instead of an hourly rate what the response would be.  I imagine this scenario:

“Listen, I understand audit is an amazingly hidebound profession – as are its cousins, finance and accounting – but let’s try something.  Instead of paying me $100 per hour (for example) on a project you expect to take 640 man-hours (about 16 man-weeks at 40 hours per week), just give me $50,000.  That’s more than a 20% discount.”

“What’s the catch?”  grumbles the client.

I get to do the project the way I want. I can use technology how I want.  If the client’s located in Kansas City, instead of going there I’ll have documents emailed to me.  I’ll outsource the one day of on-site work to a contractor there instead of traveling there.  I’ll use free tools like Skype and Open Office and Google Docs instead of fancy video-conferencing and Microsoft Office.  And I can do it when and where I like.”

“But you need to come into the office – how do we know you’re actually working?” the anguished client replies.

You won’t,” I’d reply.  “I may be washing my socks while you’re having a meeting. I may be collecting information by email while you’re stuck in traffic on the way home.  But you know what – I’ll deliver the project report to you within the same number of weeks – or less – than I would have in the office.   You’ll save money and smell like roses to your boss.  And I’ll save money, because I’ll be able to do the work more quickly without the handcuffs of an hourly billing rate that encourages me to perform tasks as slowly as possible.”

The conclusion, of course, should be obvious:  that’s how I need to run my contracting business. That’s how anyone who does project-based work should do it.  I may just give it a shot – and why not?  The world of audit, finance and accounting is a hidebound profession in many ways.  Most of the time these kinds of professions are resistant to growth – but fertile ground for growth once the resistance is broken.  Finding clients who are willing to take a chance might involve some sacrifice at first – traveling to meet them face-to-face just to convince them I know what I’m doing (the only real purpose remaining for business travel, as I see it).  But I’ve wondered a lot recently why I’m being paid like the world’s most expensive burger-flipper when it might work out much better for everyone if I was paid more like a hit man:  use the best tools, work stealthily and finish the job – all on a flat fee.

photo by nathaniel.andre