29 Mar 2009

A Fatal Flaw

Rarely a day goes by where I do not think about or act on my business ideas. Most of the actions/thoughts are centered around formulating a system or product that will create an Automated Income Stream, or pave the way to such opportunities. Every so often I’ll break from the norm and formulate ideas about business philosophies in general, how would I set things up in certain circumstances.

So it was that this past friday I was out to lunch with some developer friends from work and we got to talking about our current work load. One friend mentioned how he was tired of doing overtime (we’ve been ultra-slammed with a large project for the past 8 months) and had made a commitment to “only work one or two overtime’s per week from now on”. I rather rudely laughed in his face. Had I been drinking something, it would have been sprayed all over the backseat of the car. It should be noted now, that I have a highly disgusted opinion of that little thing that business owners love to promote: Overtime.

Mandated Overtime should be illegal.

I don’t know who would enforce that law, maybe some employee police who show up at business places after hours looking for people who were “asked” to “put in a few extra hours this week” because of a “big deadline coming up” for “client x”. Punishment for violation of this law would be placed on the business owner or manager enforcing the overtime work, punishable by revoking that person’s managerial duties for a certain amount of time (determined upon severity of the given offense). Managers with company ownership would be required to divvy up their share of the company with all harmed workers (those doing the overtime). Ya, maybe that’s how I’d do it.

Okay, but seriously, it should absolutely be illegal. It is my opinion that the business owner or manager who “asks” or “requests” overtime from a peer employee has a misplaced perception of reality, one in which their employee has lesser rights or privileges than that of their own. They think that the employee should do so for “the good of the company”, and too often, the employees buy it. “You see, we’ve got this really really big project that is coming down the wire, and we just can’t miss.” I don’t buy it. I strongly believe that Mandated (requested or required) Overtime is a sign that your boss or employer doesn’t understand a few important things about business and life in general. I present here two questions that owners/managers should consider when thinking about mandating overtime.

  1. Is the employee a person? I’m serious about this one. I truly believe that some managers don’t really see their employees as people, just drones to carry on a task and get paid for it (which means they are also an expense and a liability). Seriously, employees are people to. They have friends, family, and separate lives from work. Let them maintain those other relationships, rather than letting them crumble due to workplace stress and time away from home. The answer is that, Yes, employees are people.
  2. Does the employee want to work Overtime? Now, 99% of all employees “asked” to do overtime will say yes. When asked if they “really” want to do overtime, most will say, “sure, it’s no problem.” That’s because most people are too afraid to say No, fearing that (in a down economy) they will be looked down upon by their employer and could possibly be jeopardizing their jobs by appearing not to be a “team player”. The answer to this point, No, your employee does not want to work overtime, whatever they may say to the contrary.

So what’s this really about? Why am I making such a fuss over Overtime? It’s like I said before: Overtime represents a flawed perception of reality. So, let’s stomp it out. What does overtime really mean? In one definition, Overtime means that there is more work (sometimes far more) than we have the ability to do during normal work hours, or throughout a carefully planned project schedule. This usually means one of two things:

  1. Whoever signed off on the project did not understand the amount of work required to get it done.
  2. Whoever signed off on the project understood the amount of work required, but signed the deal anyways, knowingly committing to more work than the company or team was capable of performing.

In either case, the problem is that the project was over-sold, and will likely under-deliver, though at great cost to those involved in doing the work. In one case, it is Ignorance; in the other, Indifference. Often times it’s a mixture of both that get them in trouble. I’ve heard CEO’s and managers talk about how “Project X will make or break this company. We deliver on this one, and none of us will have to work again in our lives, unless we want to. Sure it will be hard, but that’s how it’s supposed to be, and it’ll be worth it. By the way, if we fail, we’ll all need to go find new jobs.” In short, Overtime is simply the result of someone making a deal that they probably know will be too much for the team to handle, but is too lucrative in some way to pass up. So how do you avoid the Overtime trap?


Stop selling something you don’t have. Stop promising to that client that you have this ultra cool widget that whistles like a monkey and dances like a ballerina. All of your employees know that the widget actually honks like a goose and trips down the stairs, or worse, that there is no such widget at all. If they knew what you were promising, 90% of them would be on Monster before you could count to five, and you might get a few that will up and walk out on you.

Second: Stop trying to be something you’re not.

You are an orange, not an apple. If Client X wants an apple, they certainly won’t get one by biting into your orange. So stop pretending to be something that you aren’t. Instead, focus on the truly novel concept of doing and being what you are. You will likely find that there is a viable market for oranges that you can build into and be just as happy. Oh, and you have the added benefit that your employees will absolutely love you for this.

Third: Turn Demand into a path to success, not a death march.

Don’t have a rotary-girder, but Client X really really wants one? Tell them the truth. Then, when you get back from the meeting, talk to your top people and figure out if building that rotary-girder would be a viable arm to grow into for the business. If one client wants it, are there others that would be looking for the same thing? How long would it take to put together? If this client were gone when you actually created the rotary-girder, would it have been a waste of resources, or would there be other opportunities available? If this new path is viable (and doesn’t stray too far from the focus of what you do best), then go for it. But by all means, do it right. Do your homework, plan it out, create a sensible approach to creating the product or service, and then execute with your team. But by all means, do not agree to building the product or service if you don’t have it. Build it first, then sell it to your hearts content.

The moral of this long-ish story? Mandated Overtime is something that should be avoided like the plague, as it is an indicator of something far scarier about your business: you are creating an unsustainable environment for your employees. So reel it in, stop the Overtime, scale back your ambitious selling that is putting all your employee’s that much further from their spouses. Go back to your initial focus that made you successful in the first place. Your employees will be more loyal, and you won’t have to give up parts of your company because the overtime police came calling at 10 o’clock at night to find your senior developer chest deep in production system compile errors.