Hands v. Brains: An Attempt to Clear Up Some Confusion

Jared Spool

August 14th, 2010

Recently Johnny Holland published two of my essays on a distinction I call Hands vs. Brains. (You can read part 1 & part 2.)

My thinking about Hands and Brains have come from a distinction between, in my mind, contracting and consulting work. We get a ton of calls at UIE to help people with usability and design work, but it’s clear after a few moments of discussion with the prospective client that they’re looking for contracting—someone to do the work for them and not for consulting—someone to show them how to get them to the next level.

UIE doesn’t do contracting, but lots of folks do, so I’m always on the lookout for people who are great contractors. Understanding the distinction is really important and I wrote the Johnny Holland essays to help create a language around the two types.

Apparently, I hit a nerve, because a lot of folks have been reacting to the piece in ways I didn’t expect. I wanted to take a moment and discuss some of those reactions.

What If I Do Both?

This seems to be the biggest reaction, by far. Someone who is an information architect, for example, says they are quite capable of doing both the Hands work and the Brains work. So, why should they have to choose one?

It’s true that you can be quite capable of doing both. However, most projects don’t want or need both. They either want Hands, because they don’t have enough resources and need the work completed. Or they want Brains, because they are stuck and can’t figure out how to bring their designs to a new level.

So, it’s important, when talking about a potential project to discover which one it requires, then decide, do I want to do that? Doing one basically traps you for that client—once they see you as Hands, you’l always be Hands to them. Same for Brains. It’s important to make your choice carefully.

Strategy Is Good, But Without Execution, It Fails

100% Correct. But that doesn’t mean the people who do strategy are the ones doing the execution. In fact, almost always, it’s the wrong thing to do.

The strategy has to include how the job will get done. The strategist has to know who will do the execution work.

Many Brains consultants will help find the Hands contractors/employees to get the job done. They’ll help build the team with those who are the most capable.

Execution is key but being the one doing the execution isn’t.

To Be Great At Brains, I Have To Master Hands

Absolutely. Brains have to know how to do the work of Hands. It’s gotta be second nature. They’ve got to understand how it’s done and what excellent work looks like.

However, once you start doing Brains work, it’s rare you’ll do that work again. You need to know what to expect from the Hands who will be working for you, but you won’t do it yourself.

Think of the executive chef in a restaurant. They have to know how to prep and cook every recipe. But that doesn’t mean they do that for every meal. In fact, it’s a bad use of resources and talent.

This is All About the Economics

Doing Hands work takes a long time, because it’s rigorous production work. Brains work doesn’t take as long, to deliver the same value to the team.

Hands work, because it takes longer, charges a smaller hourly rate. Brains work, because it’s shorter, charges more. Often two to three times as much (or more). Where Hands work might charge $50 to $75 per hour, Brains will charge $150 to $300 per hour. (Many really good Brains consultants charge a *lot* more.) A Hand’s engagement could last months or even years. Brain’s engagements rarely go beyond weeks and are sometimes only a few days or hours.

This is why, at the client, you can’t do both. If you try to do both Brains and Hands work on a project, you’ve got a rate mismatch. You’re either charging too little or too much for part of the work you’re doing. (And explaining to the client why you’re changing rates in the middle won’t be easy.)

Even if you love doing both, you need to decide where you’re want to focus. Go for the joy of seeing your work produced by delivering great Hands work. Have the excitement of creative big-picture problem solving with awesome Brains work. Pick your pleasure and go for it.

7 Responses to “Hands v. Brains: An Attempt to Clear Up Some Confusion”

  1. Jared Spool on Hands versus Brains : StevenClark.com.au Says:

    […] you’ve read those articles then Jared’s clarification of the hands versus brains metaphor is also essential. Good… now we’re all on the same page, so to […]

  2. Robert Hoekman, Jr Says:

    I completely agree. I did Hands work for a long time — a lot of Hands work, with a little underpaid Brains work mixed in — until Brains work completely took over. Now I rarely do Hands work. I am a strategist: I build vision, and I build teams, and I bill appropriately for it. And yes, they’re short engagements. And I would have a hard time billing what I do for Hands work; I’d be a very overpaid contractor.

  3. David Farbey Says:

    This “brains vs. hands” metaphor is an excellent and useful insight. Thank you!

  4. Mario Bourque Says:

    I don’t comment very often, but here goes…

    You are correct; once you do the brains, you seldom do the hands on. I like having them separated; because *based on my experience and not opinion*, you can get more objectivity. A generalist is good at an overseer/PM, but a specialist can go in for the kill.

    It does depend on the situation. If you’re helping a local business revamp their Web strategy, that’s one thing. If you’re leading an enterprise level company working on a project that involves a lot of resources, you can’t do both. If you do, chances are you will fail.

    I’ve never worked in an agency and do not have the desire to do so. Other than one startup in Tuckahoe, NY, I’ve always worked for enterprise level companies.

    I agree with R.H.Jr when he says “I would have a hard time billing what I do for Hands work; I’d be a very overpaid contractor.” We’ve screwed ourselves out of that space. I barter with my tattoo artist, that’s the extent of my outside work. If I were to end up unemployed, then I would probably have to do “hands” work. Not jobs. Not so many opportunities for senior folks.


    Not everyone who starts as “hands” has the ability to make it as “brains”. I haven’t seen many examples of anyone who does both well on a large scale. Myself included. I’m not a novice either.

    In most cases, the wrong decision can cost a lot of money. If you blow it, people remember. Thanks to the Internets, it’s a small world.

  5. Mike Atyeo Says:

    This is common to other ‘consultancy’ types of business. One of the best management book’s I’ve read is ‘Managing the Professional Service Firm’, by David Maister. He provides what may be a more powerful breakdown framework, and a ‘how to balance’ approach, rather than either/or.

    To summarize:
    He breaks client work into 3 types:

    1. ‘Brains’ – where the client’s work is at the leading edge of professional/tech knowledge, requiring creativity & innovation

    2. ‘Grey hair’ – require less innovation & creativity, but may need highly customized deliverables, requiring primarily experience

    3. ‘Procedure’ work – offering lots of opportunities for junior staff & routinization, primarily requiring cost-effectiveness

    He then shows the business case for how these might get mixed & matched in an organization, plus plenty of typical challenges (e.g. under-delegation!) that entrepreneurs face in operationalizing a strategy for a professional services firm.

    Definitely recommended reading if you’re interested in building a business around this!
    No, I get no commission 🙁

  6. Pleasure and Pain » Recent Reads – 8/24/2010 Says:

    […] Hands v. Brains: An Attempt to Clear Up Some Confusion » UIE Brain SparksJared's clarification […]

  7. Content strategy disrupts unethical agency sales practices — lucid plot, by Jonathan Kahn Says:

    […] will do it for less, and probably to a good-enough standard. (Jared Spool calls this distinction hands vs. brains.) That’s great if you’re creating a factory-style contracting business in a low cost […]

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