Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Time it Takes: A Learning Practitioner's Lessons on Time

When I worked in an NGO environment, we didn't ever really notice how long it took to do things. We experimented very briefly with time sheets (about a month) and found that tricky and even a bit boring to note down how every 15 minutes was spent, mostly because there was no real incentive to do so. We did do some internal billing, so on a project basis from time to time we kept track. But even in these projects it seemed that planning meetings were so frequent and long and often multi-topic, that after a while, it didn't make sense to try to allocate that time. So we never got a good sense of how long it took to do things.

Now that I am working independently I have all kind of incentive and a direct imperative to be scrupulous about the time it takes me to do things. I now have a very elaborate system that I use to keep track of time and the result of this kind of observation is very useful. Not only is it essential for billing, but it starts to show patterns that help immensely to make more accurate projections about how long things will take (useful both in the proposal and negotiation stage of projects). That of course doesn't mean that the other party has the same belief in your figures that you have, but at least you will know how close the time allocation is to what it will actually take you, and how much you might potentially be doing pro-bono.

I feel like I am prudent in how I use my time; indeed, many simultaneous commitments (work and home) and multiple ongoing projects force me to be most economic with it. Plus I have been very deliberate in my collection of reusable learning objects (RLOs-templates, activity briefs, job aids, games, etc.) which help me pass on this benefit in time savings from past investment in documenting things. Since I started keeping records nearly a year ago, and 26 projects later, this is a sample of what I am noticing about how long things take:

  • Writing a blog post (from first letter to final publish): 1 hour
  • Writing a proposal with a budget: 2 hours
  • Developing from scratch a 90-minute "training" session (part presentation/part group activity- including consultation, revisions, preparation, & delivery): 10.5 hours
  • Preparing an individual coaching programme (design, preparing/holding 6 sessions): 25 hours (3+ days)
  • Collaboratively developing a training programme curriculum (multiple events with companion 370-page participant's handbook - writing through to final proofing for printing, with some inputs coming from other sources): 172.5 hours (21.5 days)
  • Developing a 1-day facilitated planning workshop for a new client (design, consultation, and fully briefing the facilitator who delivered it): 16.75 hours (2+days)
  • Developing a 1-day facilitated training workshop for a university client (with a separate content expert providing central input, including delivery): 17.5 hours (2+ days)
  • Developing and delivering a 4-day facilitated partnership-building workshop (with multiple presenters, generative dialogue and strategy component): 64.25 hours (8+ days)
  • Design input for a 3-day conference for 300 people (including 2 parallel workshop designs and delivery, plenary activity design, coaching for other workshop presenters, plenary moderation and delivery): 80 hours (10 days)
  • Strategic Review and Advisory Report for a large training department (consultation, 6 day site visit for interviews with travel, online survey, web2.0 query and social media scan, preparation of 70-page report of feedback and recommendations, all original writing): 128 hours (16 days)

I could go on. What I notice is that time expands a little for new clients (trust building, multiple revisions, many conference calls), and for developing new materials or new approaches for known topics. Collaborative work obviously takes longer as there are many more partners and opinions to take into consideration, and more revisions as a result. Larger scale of an event also means more time as there are more delivery agents that need coordinated, coaching, briefing, etc.

Report writing is harder to judge, and it takes longer than you imagine, not only for creative delivery but for editing and layout. For a project that includes part original writing and part working with other sources, like creating a participant's manual, my past experience shows I can produce about 18 pages a day (as a ratio, that includes all the consultation, revision, proofing, etc.). For completely original writing much less: about 4 pages a day, depending on how much data collection is needed. I am doing a project right now that included 16 interviews to produce a 25 page highly synthetic how-to document plus annexes, and this is going to take more like 15 days (or 2 pages per day ratio.)

These things take time, and the more accurate you can be in capturing this data, and learning what makes creates divergence from your standard ratios, the clearer and more accurate you can be in your discussions with partners. Then you can choose your options, based on experience and learning about the way you work.

What are you learning about the time it takes? (and indeed, this blog post took exactly 1 hour, practically on the dot!)


Michael Randel said...

I echo what you say, and I have very similar insights from my own consulting practice.
e.g. a 90-minute facilitation session during a client meeting required 16 hours time, from initial scoping and design, preparing proposal, reviewing the venue in advance, setting the room, meeting twice with the client, and running the session.
Knowing the time it really takes to do things also helps me put reasonable fees on my proposals that reflect reality...

But as for estimating how much time is required for preparing a report... I don't know if I will ever crack that one!

Gillian Martin Mehers said...

Thanks Michael, I am happy to hear that this has also been your experience (that shorter interventions often take as much time to prepare as long ones.)

On reporting, I am going to continue to keep track and check back in a year and see if I still agree with myself on my ratios there!