Friday, March 14, 2008

Lack of Motivation for Time Tracking

While waiting in the airport to head back to Seattle from SXSW (SXSWi was awesome BTW) I got to thinking about why it is so hard to get good data on how long it takes to perform tasks.

I ran across the following quote and it got me to thinking:
A typical problem, a few organizations in this industry face is collecting the required and accurate data. The performing teams needs to be oriented towards the importance of collecting data in an accurate manner. The team needs to be appraised on how the data collected is going to benefit their organization in future projects. Once the team is aware of how important the data collected is, how the data is going to be used etc., accurate data collection process will automatically be part of the project execution system.

- Size Based Estimation For Legacy Applications, G. Varghese and V. N. Iyer, 2005
Well now, that’s such wishful thinking I don’t really know where to start. Yup, just tell those developers why it is so important that they fill out the time card and I’m sure they’ll be happy to jump right on it. The key line in this is “how the data collected is going to benefit their organization” (emphasis mine). Few people really give a crap about how something will benefit their organization. They care about how things will benefit them personally. Now if you’re lucky these things are aligned. But in this case they are so not aligned that it would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

If it were that simple there would be no struggle to get folks to fill out timecards or use other time tracking software. They simply would because what’s good for the organization is good for them, right? Rising tide, all boats, blah blah blah. Right.

Let me put it this way. Developers (professional ones anyway) typically demand source code management software. Try telling your developers that you want to get rid of their SCM and use simple file shares because it has less bureaucracy and is faster. Go on, try it. I’ll wait…
Oh, you’re back already? How’d that work for you?

Not so good huh?

Well it’s not friggin’ surprising since the developers can see a clear group benefit as well as a personal benefit to using SCM. They can see an immediate impact upon their own lives and how happy they are from doing this even though for any one action it is clearly harder.

Now time tracking… what’s in it for me? This is one of those “the dog didn’t bark” things. See if it really were true that filling out a time card improved how everything worked then everyone would be doing it. You’d have to fight your developers to pry their time cards from their cold dead fingers. So I’m claiming that the fact that nobody much really likes to fill out time cards suggests that there’s really no personal benefit to doing so.

Until we can make it obviously beneficial to the individual to track their time, they either won’t, or will do it very poorly.


Anonymous said...

Hey Bruce! Informative post. I'm going to bookmark and reference it soon in a follow up to one of my posts on time tracking: Tracking Time IS Important In Project Management.

See you're in Seattle - me too!
Great brains must think alike around here - my blog is titled "Raven's Brain" ;)

Lucy said...

I am an intern at a software developing company and I have to agree about the developers. I don't think they would actually want to leave their 4 screens of full blown html and other complicated info. I just see it as figuring out something more complicated makes them love their job more.

jjriv said...

We've struggled with this same issue. We had a paper timesheet our developers would fill out each day. A lot of trackable time fell through the cracks. Our final solution was to build a web-based task tracker that allowed our developers to track time against each task. There is a timer associated with each task that they can start and stop while working on the task. Then they apply their time. This method increased our tracked time by 30%.

You can check out the web-based service, Intervals, at

Anonymous said...

Bruce, I develop time tracking software so I have something to say about this...

You are abolutely right! Our biggest challenge is finding companies enthusiastic enough to adopt the product. No simple task.

My blog:


Marina Martin said...

Whoa. Quotations like that cause me to lose faith in all of humanity. Please tell me you lifted that from an elementary school project.

You're completely right - time tracking only works if it's to an individual's benefit to track their time. If your employees work 9-5, there are few incentives to get them to track [accurately].

If your employees were paid by performance and not by their ability to punch a clock, though, then you could realistically get better tracking data IF it's coupled with resources on how to minimize the time spent on Task X (and therefore give the employee that time back to do as they please). Tracking alone is virtually useless on an individual level unless paid by the hour.

Rick Cogley said...

Wow, what a laugh that quote is. Sounds like some PhD student's bad thesis.

Realistically, you have to a) make it really, really easy to do and b) link it to something that will cause some pain if lost. For instance, in my firm, our engagement contracts are time and materials, so it's easy for me to say to staff "do this or WE don't get paid" which is motivation enough. However, for an internal development group, I think you'd need to link it to the group members' compensation.

Rick Cogley

Jenn said...

I'm wondering what your thoughts are now on this post, as a scrum master where this time estimating and tracking more clearly benefits the team's workload and sanity. Of course, I know you guys are using story points... but still. Thoughts b?