The biggest flaw of time-tracking

It happened to me in my early 30s. There I was, working my way up the corporate ladder, exceeding sales quotas and working with people who I quite liked. There were long days of golf, corporate dinners, and a not too shabby expense account, and then it happened. The corporate email advising that having recently been acquired by a publicly traded company, we would now be required to track all of our time within 15-minute intervals to a project number. My first thought was, “What are we? Lawyers?”

Today, as a project manager, I need my project to deliver the objectives that I and my project sponsor have agreed to for the specific budget we have also agreed would be appropriate. Sometimes this means scoping out an assigned project and having a very difficult conversation with my sponsor advising that it is not possible to deliver all of the bells and whistles for the allocated budget. That said, there has never been a time when we were not able to collaborate to reach a mutually achievable goal.

Scoping out a project means working with all of the subject matter experts, aka SMEs, to understand all of the tasks necessary to complete the work and deliver the project. This is not something that anyone can do in isolation. The SMEs are integral. When the work begins, everyone starts to bill their time against the project and when the happy path is taken, the SMEs use the time they told me a task would take, and on which I have based the budget, to complete the work.


Sadly, this is where the dichotomy between corporate administration and successful projects becomes abundantly apparent. I always take a deep breath when I give a resource the project code for them to bill time to and I heavily scrutinize what is charged against my projects. I do this because if a resource has nowhere else to bill time, they will arbitrarily use whatever project code or codes have been given to them. This means that the project manager responsible for the budget has to either (1) suck it up and show a loss for the project, (2) bill the overrun to the client, or (3) have yet another difficult conversation with resources asking them specifically what was delivered for the hours they billed and making the appropriate adjustments. Just so that everyone is aware, option No. 3 is the correct choice.

That is my segue to the No. 1 flaw with time-tracking. If you are a time-tracking organization that bases your revenue on billing out your resources and you demand your resources to bill their time to a project, you have to ensure they have enough work to justify their ability to track 100 percent of their time. Put simply, without following this one simple rule, the entire concept falls apart.

The good news is that this is a problem that is easily rectified by advancing your organization to the next level of maturity. Young, entrepreneurial organizations can exist by engaging a group of smart, hardworking individuals and allowing them to do their job anyway that they see fit. The challenge is that as an organization starts to mature, undocumented and unregulated processes and systems become a liability. There is no question that it becomes important to monitor employee productivity via the implementation of time-tracking. But this cannot be done in isolation. There are other steps in the hierarchy of strategic planning that need to be undertaken.

Set realistic and achievable goals

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, a French writer from the early 20th Century once said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” This insightful quote holds true even today in the world of business. As an enterprise, we need to set realistic and achievable goals and then we need to determine the path, or mission, to get us there. We do live in a fiscally driven world. This means that as part of goal setting, there exists the need to determine realistic financial goals and to then build a strategic plan to get there.

Set employees up for success


Steve Case, a co-founder of AOL, said, “In the end, a vision without the ability to execute it is probably a hallucination.” Requiring employees to record 100 percent of their time as billable to a project is not a sustainable endeavor unless your enterprise requires no administration from billable resources. If your corporate vision is 100 percent billable employees, understand that there are substantial planning and system development required before this goal can be achieved. Indeed, substantial investment in a highly motivated sales team will need to be a high priority.

One of the most successful enterprise organizations I have had the pleasure of working with had the philosophy that successful employees mean a successful enterprise. They did not succumb to “The Peter Principle” by promoting people to their level of incompetence. Rather, they supported people in the roles in which they were the most productive and awarded them appropriately. The salespeople were highly motivated and they engaged subject matter experts prior to closing on a new contract. This meant that the employees engaged to deliver were left in a position of success. Projects were delivered within the budget and project resources were held accountable for the time they estimated it would take to complete their tasks.

The cart belongs behind the horse

We have all heard the saying that you can’t put the cart before the horse. If time-tracking is imposed prior to setting realistic and achievable goals, the resulting input may very well not be representative of the work that has been completed. Project cost overruns are a symptom and may be the result of imposing time-tracking administration too early in the strategic planning cycle.

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