Want to be paid by the hour or the job?

I used to divide people into two types, when I was thinking about how they work. One type works according to elapsed time.

That type gets paid (or expects to) according to the amount of time that they spend on the job. It’s a bit like a metered taxi. As long as the meter is running, the bill is what it says. An alternative model is that of a fee for the journey, negotiated in advance. The cab driver will only get paid the agreed upon amount, when he accomplishes the journey.

Paul Epp

There is a big difference in the way of thinking that underlies these two models. In the former, there is not such an incentive for the cab driver to either drive quickly or to take the most direct route. In fact, it may be to his (her) advantage not to.

What typifies this approach is that it describes a process. The big benefit of this model is that there is far less latitude for exploitation. The process is clear and it protects, more or less, all of those involved.

The latter model is predicated on being paid for accomplishment. There is an incentive, in this case, to be efficient and skilful, as the rewards are commensurate.

People seem to gravitate to one type or the other. They belong to the group that suits them. As an example, most designers are achievement oriented. They have a vision that they seek to fulfill and their reward will have to wait for its accomplishment. This is why designers are likely to be uncomfortable when they are working within a large institution or a bureaucracy. The pattern there is to focus on process, not on an end result.

Process is crucially important to the administration of complex matters. The i’s have to be dotted and the t’s crossed. The wheels need to keep turning. Much of our civilization depends on this. The focus on process also applies to the workers that toil in factories or put up roofs. Its fortuitous that many people are content to put their shoulder to this type of wheel.

But many people are not. These people might be designers, as I have suggested, or they might be in business. They are rewarded only when something is achieved. There are few things as frustrating as having an objective in mind and to be working with people who cannot see beyond their desk and a small set of rules.

I find it interesting to note the boastful claims of business people that become politicians. They brag that they will ‘stop the gravy train’ or ‘make America great again’ or some such fantasy. I think that they are making a categorical mistake. They think that government can be made to run like a business, that is, on a model of accomplishment rather than one of process. Good luck to them (and us).

As an academic, I worked within a large organization. Large, at least, compared to the size of my own business when I was doing that. In that case, it was critical to be fast and flexible. Rules might get bent a little? No worries. My eye was on the prize and I did what I could to ensure that those who worked with me shared my impetus to accomplish, even though they got paid either way. To be achievement-oriented suited me.

Once I was part of a large machine, I soon realized that many of those that I worked with had no real sense of accomplishment in the way that I did. Their accomplishment was to ensure that their contribution to a process was within the limits that had been set for them. And I eventually realized that my eventual accomplishment, which was the education of my students, depended as well on the efforts of the many non-teaching staff, who kept the process moving along.

I was reminded of my time working in furniture factories as a youth. I was impatient and eager to have my own factory and I chafed under the control of those above me. But I noticed that most of my co-workers were more than content to have the heavy lifting be done by others. They would make their contribution to the process and let others do the worrying.

I mentioned that I used to divide people into these two categories. But now I have added a third one. There are those of us that are not focused on either process or accomplishment. We talk about it instead.

Paul Epp is professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.
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