The real, unspoken problem with timesheets.

Timesheets are telling, but not in a good way.

I ran an advertising agency for six years and on precisely zero occasions did I make a decision based on timesheet data that I wouldn’t have made otherwise. This is because on precisely zero occasions did timesheet data tell me anything I didn’t know already.

If you know your agency, if you walk the floor and talk to people; more importantly if you walk the floor and listen to people, you will know which projects are making money and you will know which clients are taking advantage of you. And you will have a solid empirical feeling for the degree of these things. You will know what is broken and needs fixing and what isn’t and doesn’t.

You don’t need to put a number to this knowledge,but the temptation and/or pressure to do so can be significant.

Timesheets generate numbers. Numbers get entered into spreadsheets. Numbers in spreadsheets are called data. Data are credible, ill-deservedly so where timesheets are concerned. Data are also deceptively comforting. Timesheet data provide low-risk subject matter for board meetings. Time analysis is a welcome, safe distraction from tough, head-above-the-parapet subjects like how do we make the work better, how do we celebrate and retain awesome people, how do we engineer a step change in the agency’s profile?

I hate timesheet data because it is anything but credible and safe.

It feels scientific. It masquerades as robust, actionable management information.

But timesheets are not scientific. They are not even quasi-scientific. Timesheets are pseudo-science.

Depending on the diligence and integrity of the individuals concerned, timesheet data exist somewhere on a spectrum that has informed guesswork at one end, well intentioned fiction in the middle and outright mendacity at the other.

This is a problem.

But it is not the real, unspoken problem with timesheets.


This Digiday article was widely shared over Twitter recently — The Timesheet Tax On Creativity.

The article talks about how the billable hours model of remuneration creates perverse incentives for agencies to devote more resource and more hours to solving a problem than is necessary. It also argues that a payment model based on hours spent actually has an adverse effect on creative quality. The agency gets paid more to spend a lot of time on a mediocre solution than it would to come up with a brilliant solution quickly.

This is a problem.

But it is not the real, unspoken problem with timesheets.


The real, unspoken problem with timesheets is the pernicious, insidious effect that they have on culture.

Culture is observed. Culture is learned, absorbed and propagated through unwritten ground rules . Unwritten ground rules like, “No one ever turns up on time for internal meetings here and it doesn’t seem to matter.”

If you are concerned with attracting, motivating, retaining and unleashing the full potential of creative talent then you can ill afford an unwritten ground rule like “This company is more concerned with measuring inputs than it is with improving the quality of output.”

And that’s the impression that an obsession with pseudo management information can create. Timesheets are telling. They don’t tell a good manager anything he or she didn’t know already. But they do tell everyone else that the organisation’s heart is in the wrong place.

Timesheets are the opposite of foot massages.

According to Vincent Vega foot massages send out all sorts of unspoken positive signals.

The unspoken signals that a zealously policed timesheet regime sends out are just as strong, but not in a good way.

Now, look, I’ve given a million accountants a million timesheets, and they all meant nothing. We act like they do, but they don’t, and that’s what’s so fucking uncool about them. There’s a spurious thing going on where you don’t talk about it, but you know it, they know it, fucking accounts knew it, and management should have fucking better known better.

(Apologies to Quentin Tarantino.)

Creative people want to work where the work is all that matters. They obsess about output. To them your obsession with measuring input is a bummer.

Creative people want to be Cliff Jumpers* and swashbucklers, not a high nineties resource utilisation number.

They want to be part of Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl crew — constructive chaos, radical improvisation, riotous teamwork, no timesheets.

Whereas nothing says East India Company like an all-staff do-your-timesheets email.


*Cliff Jumper = radical new breed of accountants that charge for the value of non-commodity solutions to intellectually challenging problems, rather than by the hour.