August 14th, 2010
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.Tweet