Management by numbers

This week at work we were asked to start using timesheet software to track the hours that we work on various projects. I hate timesheet software. Hate with a fiery passion. But when a coworker asked me why, I had to confess I really didn’t know. He pointed out that it only takes a couple minutes each week to fill out. That it’s useful for budget allocation and making sure that projects are being appropriately resourced. That it can provide an indication to management of when people are spending time on things they shouldn’t be. So where’s the downside? Why does it upset me so?

After some reflection, I think I have an answer. And it gets back to a common theme I’ve been on with regard to being treated as a person. The thing that bothers me about the timesheet method of management is that it treats me as a resource. Not a person. The timesheet reduces me to a number to be crunched into budget allocations and project management. And I think I find that fundamentally degrading. One of the commonalities among the management structures I find interesting was that they were people-based. In fact, the Gore management structure was set up specifically because Gore the founder realized that he didn’t know everybody at his plant any more.

I understand that larger organizations need some sort of process and bureaucracy to be able to function. But I believe somewhere in my little idealistic brain that the process can be used to serve the people, rather than having people be crunched down to fit the process. I hate going through the exercise of trying to reduce the work that I’m doing down to the over-broad categories that other people have made up. Eventually, of course, I do what everybody else does, and just make up numbers. Which is fine if the numbers were then treated as the fictions that they are. But as soon as such numbers are entered in a timesheet, they take on a life of their own, where they are treated as the reality that define the budget process, and I am but a flimsy shadow of the numbers. And I think that is what I don’t like.

If you want to know what I’m doing, take the two minutes and ask me. Or I can write up a paragraph summarizing what I’m doing that will take you 30 seconds to read. But don’t ask me to fit my work into arbitrary categories for the sake of a budget process that fundamentally ignores the realities of employees as people. It mischaracterizes and trivializes the work I’m doing by reducing it to a category that you have defined. “Oh, you’re doing research. Okay. Well, that’s not important. You should be spending your time doing product development instead.” What does that even mean? If you recategorize my work into a different budget bin, does that change what I’m doing? No. Because I feel that I have the best perspective on the question of how I can use my skills to advance the project. No amount of budget-fiddling will change that. The way to get me to change what I’m doing is to talk to me and convince me that my skills could be better used elsewhere, not to change a budget number.

There’s a better management model hidden here someplace. I’m sure of it. I feel like I’m skirting around the outside of it. But, as usual, it may not be realistic for the world we live in. There’s too many people who treat rules as immutable laws of nature, and budgets and numbers as realities rather than representations, who don’t understand the concept of abstraction. The map is not the territory. And confusing the two only leads to anger and confusion, because any representation will necessarily be incomplete. And bad representations, which is the category I feel things like project codes and timesheets fall into, are especially inadequate at describing what they are supposed to represent. And then when the managers get upset because their representations are inadequate, they take it out on the representees (aka their employees) for not being like the reductive confining simplified representations.

And I think that is why I hate timesheets.

The map is not the territory – Speaking of which, I read the Eschaton section of Infinite Jest this morning. Unbelievably hilarious. I picked up Infinite Jest from the library before my trip last week, after really liking the book of David Foster Wallace essays. In this particular case, the way Wallace constructs the game of Eschaton to illustrate the philosophical point that the map is not the territory, which one of the characters screams at the top of his lungs, is absolutely brilliant. The book overall is kind of uneven so far, though. And really large. I’m about 350 pages in, a third of the way through, and I’ve had to start an index page to keep track of what scenes happened where so that when a scene references something that happened or some other background material, I can flip back and figure out what’s going on. Through about 300 pages, I could do it by keeping it all in my head, but it’s too much now. But among this morass of plot and characters, there are these asides that are incisive observations of people and how they think. I really liked the one about why videophones will never achieve mass market appeal, for instance. Or this one about Eschaton. I think I’ll eventually get a copy of it, and dogear the digressions I really like, and pretty much skip all the rest of this stuff. Or maybe it all makes more sense when it gets tied together. Certainly a possibility.

4 thoughts on “Management by numbers

  1. Stick with Infinite Jest – you will find that things get tied together. It is well worth it.

    The Eschaton section is absolutely one of the funniest things I have ever read. As a tennis player myself, his likening the flight of a topspin lob to the trajectory of an ICBM almost caused me to pee myself.

    Read everything by DFW. He’s the greatest writer of our time. Short fiction (some of the essays in Oblivion are simply haunting), long fiction, and short nonfiction – all of it.

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