TITLE: Paying for Value or Paying for Time AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 05, 2009 3:25 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Brian Marick tweeted about his mini-blog post Pay me until you're done, which got me to thinking. The idea is something like this: Many agile consultants work in an agile way, attacking the highest-value issue they can in a given situation. If the value of the issues to work on decreases with time, there will come a point at which the consultant's weekly stipend exceeds the value of the work he is doing. Maybe the client should stop buying services at that point. My first thought was, "Yes, but." (I am far too prone to that!) First, the "yes": In the general case of consulting, as opposed to contract work, the consultant's run will end as his marginal effect on the company approaches 0. Marick is being honest about his value. At some point, the value of his marginal contribution will fall below the price he is charging that week. Why not have the client end the arrangement at that point, or at least have the option to? This is a nice twist on our usual thinking. Now for the "but". As I tweeted back this feels a bit like Zeno's Paradox. Marick the consultant covers not half the distance from start to finish each week, but the most valuable piece of ground remaining. With each week, he covers increasingly less valuable distance. So our consultant, cast in the role of Achilles, concedes the race and says, okay, so stop paying me. This sounds noble, but remember: Achilles would win the race. We unwind Zeno's Paradox when we realize that the sum of an infinite series can be a finite number -- and that number may be just small enough for Achilles to catch the tortoise. This works only for infinite series that behave in a particular way. Crazy, I know, but this is how the qualification of the "yes" arose in my mind. Maybe, the consultant helps to create a change in his client that changes the nature of the series of tasks he is working on. New ideas might create new or qualitatively different tasks to do. The change created may change the value of an existing task, or reorder the priorities of the remaining tasks. If the nature of the series changes, it may cause the value of the series to change, too. If so, then the client may well want to keep the consultant around, but doing something different than the original set of issues would have called for. Another thought: Assume that the conditions that Marick described do hold. Should the compensation model be revised? He seems to be assuming that the consultant charges the same amount for each week of work, with the value of the tasks performed early being greater than that amount and the value of the tasks performed later being less than that amount. If that is true,then early on the consultant is bringing in substantially more value than he costs. If the client pulls the plug as soon as the value proposition turns in its favor, then the consultant ends up receiving less than the original contract called for yet providing more than average value for the time period. If the consultant thinks that is fair, great. What if not? Perhaps the consultant should charge more in the early weeks, when he is providing more value, than in later week? Or maybe the client could pay a fee to "buy out" the rest of the contract? (I'm not a professional consultant, so take that into account when evaluating my ideas about consultant compensation...) And another thought: Does this apply to what happens when a professor teaches a class? In a way, I think it does. When I introduce a new area to students, it may well be the case that the biggest return on the time we spend (and the biggest bang for the students' tuition dollars) happens in the first weeks. If the course is successful, then most students will become increasingly self-sufficient in the area as the semester goes on. This is more likely the case for upper-division courses than for freshmen. What would it be like for a student to decide to opt out of the course at the point where she feels like she has stopped receiving fair value for the time being spent? Learning isn't the same as a business transaction, but this does have an appealing feel to it. The university model for courses doesn't support Marick's opt-out well. The best students in a course often reach a point where they are self-sufficient or nearly so, and they are "stuck". The "but" in our teaching model is that we teach an audience larger than one, and the students can be at quite different levels in background and understanding. Only the best students reach a point where opting out would make sense; the rest need more (and a few need a lot more -- more than one semester can offer!). The good news is that the unevenness imposed by our course model doesn't hurt most of those best students. They are usually the ones who are able to make value out of their time in the class and with the professor regardless of what is happening in the classroom. They not only survive the latency, but thrive by veering off in their own direction, asking good questions and doing their own programming, reading, thinking outside of class. This way of thinking about the learning "transaction" of a course may help to explain another class of students. We all know students who are quite bright but end up struggling through academic courses and programs. Perhaps these students, despite their intelligence and aptitude for the discipline, don't have the skills or aptitude to make value out of the latency between the point they stop receiving net value and the end of the course. This inability creates a problem for them (among them, boredom and low grades). Some instructors are better able to recognize this situation and address it through one-on-one engagement. Some would like to help but are in a context that limits them. It's hard to find time for a lot of one-on-one instruction when you teach three large sections and are trying to do research and are expected to meet all of the other expectations of a university prof. Sorry for the digression from Marick's thought experiment, which is intriguing in its own setting. But I have learned a lot from applying agile development ideas to my running. I have found places where the new twist helps me and others where the analogy fails. I'm can't shake the urge to do the same on occasion with how we teach. -----