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Why “Little Bits of Work” Are Poison

Many organizations may have “little bits” of digital work that need to be done – on their websites, for example. But they may find that either nobody wants to do the work, the prices seem too steep, or the quality ends up being bad. Why is this?


The reality is that, for any established agency, for a small team such as ours, or even for a freelancer, these “little bits of work” are poison. The following should help to explain why.


You think you know the solution?


First, when someone puts forward a requirement which they say is “a little bit of work”, very often this means that something is unsatisfactory with what they currently have – with their website’s functionality or appearance, for example – and, having identified the apparent deficiency, they think they know what needs to be done to improve the situation.


This could be anything from feeling a page lacks impact and wanting to use a new image on it, to wanting to change some text, to adding a new page or feature, to adding some images into a page, to turning a Powerpoint slideshow into a video, to… you get the idea. And all of these ideas do address a problem – if a page lacks impact we should improve it, if the text is incorrect we should change that, if a Powerpoint show contains valuable information for a site’s users then we should look at the most effective way to make that information available…. But what we’re talking about here is problems that need to be solved. Whereas what “little bit of work” clients often do is propose solutions. The person proposing it has often leaped to a conclusion.


Now, clients know their own businesses, and customers, better than we do, and their insight should be respected. But they are not designers, coders, or producers. They may well be proposing a solution from a position of complete ignorance. And that may, therefore, be a really bad solution.


As one example, typically they won’t have considered responsive issues, or screen sizes – so they won’t understand how that image will be cropped on some screens, or that the video of their Powerpoint presentation will be illegible on some devices, etc. For this reason, nine times out of ten when a client says “I want this image on my website” the answer is “we can do that, but it will look dreadful – how about if, instead….”


In other words, clients with larger projects come to us with problems, treatments, ideas and insights which we can run with; clients with a “little bit of work” often ask for things that are ill-considered or impossible.


Unsurprisingly, it is more motivating for a team to work out a good solution, than to be told point-blank to implement a bad one.


Is it a “little” bit of work?


If I have a headache, I don’t go to the doctor and tell him I have a “little bit of work to do on my head”. If my car is making a weird noise, I don’t tell a mechanic “just silence the noise – it’s a quick little job…” Because I appreciate that bodies and cars (like pieces of technology – such as websites) are complex systems, and that a qualified specialist will have to make the call on what is or isn’t a big job.


This should be really obvious, but let’s give a specific example.


Maybe someone says “I just need the phone number changed on my website”. Sounds like “a little bit of work”, right? Well, let’s say the phone number appears on every page of the site – maybe 20 pages. Now….


Option 1: the website was built on a CMS, with a well-thought-out design. In this case changing the phone number means opening up the admin panel, changing one field and clicking Save; the phone number – and the link that is dialed from a mobile – is automatically updated across the site. So, we empty the cache, pick up a phone, navigate to the site, and click on a phone number – maybe on a couple of pages, just to be sure – to make sure it dials through successfully. That is a really simple bit of work. I’m not even going to write it up as a task for the team – I’ll probably just do it myself while I have the client on the phone, and if I could even be bothered to invoice for it then it would take longer to raise the invoice than actually do it.


Option 2: there is no CMS, or the CMS was appallingly set up. We have to change the phone number on every page, manually, changing the visible phone number and the call link separately. Moreover, if there is no CMS we have to back up the pages before we can work on them, and, whatever happens, we are, after making the changes, going to have to check every page manually, both looking for the visual change, and making a test call from each. (And because that is such a tedious task, we really ought to test more than once.) Now that is absolutely not a little bit of work. That is a couple of hours of tedium that could drag into half a day – and that’s without even considering anything else that is going on with the phone number on the page (like formatting constraints or tracking scripts).


So in this case we have a task which could be 5 minutes, or 5 hours. But in the client’s head they have already decided that it is a “little bit of work”.


Lots and lots of “little bits” can either be utterly trivial, or horrible headaches – adding menu items, updating images, changing text, etc. Which way this goes is a question of context, not of the requirement itself. If someone doesn’t fully understand the context they aren’t qualified to assess how major the task is.


When a client comes to us and says “this is a little bit of work” they are not telling us that it is a little bit of work – because they don’t know. What they are saying is that they have decided that it is a little bit of work. In other words, they have decided how the world is, without understanding how it really is, and they will be disappointed if we can’t magically make reality conform to their wishes.


A client who says “this is a little bit of work” is actually saying to us – without realizing it – “please disappoint me”. And they will blame us for their disappointments.


Why would anyone want to take on work where the client will end up disappointed? That’s crazy. But often that’s exactly what “little bit of work” clients may be demanding.


Cultural Contamination.


Beyond the superficial problems, the “little bits of work” demands are actually poisonous to a team.


I strive to keep the team focused on quality. For example, ordinarily if a designer says to me “well I’ve finished that, but, hey, I’ve got an idea – it would be even better if… so, shall I?” my answer is “why are you even asking me? A couple of hours to potentially turn something good into something great – JDI – you don’t need my permission to make this rock!” But the “quick bit of work” clients don’t want that. They often want exactly what they’ve asked for, as cheaply as possible. Suddenly the team is confused. What are we doing here? Are we here to do good work? Or to take dodgy shortcuts?


And moreover, if a client is pushing us to do something cheap (which is usually the subtext to “a little bit of work”) then there is a danger that – as my job is basically to serve the client – I will cut corners. And that will create problems which cause bugs or come back to haunt us later. In other words (and we had this recently – with, as per the example above, a telephone number change – where I cut back on testing to save money) I will let the client push me into giving bad service.


Can we charge for it?


There is also the question of whether we can even charge for a “little bit of work”.


Assume the hypothetical phone number change above just takes five minutes. What do I do, really? Do I say 10 minutes talking to the client + 5 minutes doing the work + 15 minutes raising an invoice = half an hour, so I charge half an hour? I’d hate to do that.


I’m determined that our admin is our problem (not the client’s). And I’d hate to charge for “account management” time – i.e. the client is never billed for talking to me: client communication shouldn’t be a source of revenue for me (as that incentivizes me incorrectly) and I absolutely don’t ever want a client to be put off raising a concern or question by the idea of being charged for it. So if we start billing for this kind of thing then we’ve lost our focus on serving the client – and that’s worth a lot more than a half hour’s lost revenue.


But what’s the alternative? To raise an invoice for five minutes – Really?!


Or perhaps we don’t bother billing at all?


Actually, “don’t bother to bill” is exactly what I do. Last time I had a ten minute project in from a regular client I just made a joke of it – told him I couldn’t be bothered to raise an invoice, but next time could he please give us a real project. And for someone who wasn’t an existing or regular client, I’d just say “no, we can’t help, sorry.”


What about the team?


While I’m talking to a client about a “little bit of work”, what are the rest of the team supposed to do?


We have target ratios that we look for between billable and unbillable time, and between management and implementation work.


If we had more unbillable time, we’d have to put up our rates. At the moment our clients are pretty happy that they get cost-effective work because our hourly rate isn’t inflated by absorbing a lot of unbillable effort.


At the same time, we can only keep the team busy if management time doesn’t become a burden. A half hour agonizing over five minutes of work is a half hour that I’m not spending driving quality and execution on a half-day mini-project. If we take on work that eats up management time, we can’t keep the team busy.


For us this is a mild catastrophe – nobody is on payroll, all are freelance, but there are several guys who I try to keep fairly constantly busy, and I don’t want to neglect them and have them wander off and find a full time job elsewhere. (In other words, if I took on a lot of “little bits of work”, I could lose my team – which would mean I’d be unable to deliver any work at all.) For a bigger, established outfit with guys on salary and office costs to pay, this would be an even greater catastrophe: little bits of work for them would not just distract from larger projects, but would leave salaries and rent unpaid.


Practical Steps


So, that gives an idea why I, or someone else running a small team, isn’t going to be keen on little bits of work. And, even more so, big agencies will utterly hate this stuff.


But the fact remains that people will still need small tweaks to their digital properties. There will still be niggles to address. So what should an organization do if they need to get “little bits of work” done?

  • Offer challenges, not solutions. If the problem is that a page lacks impact, then ask for the page to be made more impactful – don’t leap to a conclusion about how to do that. Don’t buy a dog and then bark yourself – the dog barks better than you. Not all little bits of work come down to solutioneering, but a lot do. Use the expertise of the team. And if part of the challenge is to find a cost effective way to accomplish X then be clear about that – if the team is there to serve you then they’ll be able to work with that.
  • Batch tasks. Don’t ask for one thing to be changed today and another next week. Batch up known issues, along with general concerns. For example we had a very successful little project for a major NGO last year where they came to us with 15 defined changes to a campaign website; after we investigated and talked through the issues with them, the list stood at 40 issues. And that’s fine. Each issue was small, some were tiny, but because we batched them up communication and testing time was massively reduced, morale remained high – cost down, quality up, everyone happy.
  • Get set up to handle specific small tasks yourself. If your web property is correctly set up there may be things that your internal guys can do very easily. Be wary of this – pursued with more hope than caution you’ll end up asking unqualified people to do things that are beyond them and you’ll damage the quality of your site; I’ve seen plenty of sites, usually for small businesses, which started out looking fine but ended up being mutilated by someone unqualified. But if you use this approach sparingly and intelligently you may find that some routine changes can be made as fast as they can be briefed. And personally I’d much rather give you something that you can run with than have you coming back to me every time you need to take a little step forward.
  • Be realistic about future work. When you set up anything on the web then, unless it’s truly a stand-alone that with be set in stone (an annual report, for example), then have a plan for how it will be maintained and developed. Yes, that makes the site more expensive to set up. But it means that in future more “little bits” really will be little, and that you’ll be able to handle a lot of them internally.
  • Manage your stakeholders. A lot of “little bits of work”, often including the most fantastically (sometimes humourously) ill-informed – are a result of stakeholders within an organization making arbitrary requests. This is about internal organizational processes and power relations, but it remains generally true that the client organization’s internal discussions are the primary determinant of any project’s cost, and this is as true with “little bits of work” as it is with major projects.