A couple of days ago, I read a great article by Jared Spool over at Johnny Holland titled “The Hands vs. The Brains”. It hit a personal cord with me after my last full time position at an agency before becoming a full time consultant.
The gist of the article centers on distinguishing the differences between being a ‘hands-on’ contractor and a ‘brains-on’ consultant, so to speak. Depending on the need of the organization and/or project, you do a lot of hands on work if your role is to deliver artifacts for team consumption. Likewise, if folks need your confidence, experience and insight into users and best practices, and how that direction could influence great work, you’re role is more along the lines of leadership and management.
Where it gets interesting, and where I struggled (and assume others have as well) is making the transition from ‘hand work’ to ‘brain work’ in your career, or even trying to do both at the same time on the job. Ultimately, Jared posits that you’ll always fall back to your ‘hand work’ over time, no matter what your role requires of your ‘brain work’:
Brainwork, on the other hand, is where your expertise and experience come into play. If the team doesn’t know what a wireframe is or how to decide what they should do, they’ll want someone who can give them solid advice. It they’re smart, they’ll be selective about who they hire, looking for someone with a track record of helping other teams in comparable situations, and they’ll pay top dollar for their help.
Maybe the team’s leadership is mistaken and they shouldn’t be doing wireframes at all? Well, someone hired to do brain work will have earned the respect and authority to say, “You know, there’s a better way to do this” and the team will listen. (Occasionally, they’ll even revise their plans, but that’s another column for another day.)
However, if that same person was hired to do handwork, there’s no way the leadership will pay attention. It’s wasted breath (or worse, seen as belligerence that may result in removal from the project). Handwork is hired for hands, not brains. Please keep your brains to yourself.
This has been my experience, especially if you’re looked as a ‘resource’… someone who is added to projects to provide deliverables rather than leadership. If you’re positioned for your ‘brain work’, you’re at the project table from the very beginning, rather than at a project kickoff.
Part of this also deals with how your market yourself, and what activities you engage in both at work and outside of it. For example, I may be the Director of Professional Development for the Usability Professionals Association, but I’ve been Project Managing our recent UPA Redesign effort since last year. It’s been a hefty combination of communication management and producing documentation to help guide the process along (RFP’s, Resource Documents, etc.), and it’s been 90% ‘hand work’ and only minor ‘brain work’.
Dan Szuc, our VP, is on the opposite side of the coin. He contributes strategic ideas and concepts, but doesn’t claim responsibility for the ‘how’, or ‘hand work’ to get it done. His gifts are seeing the bigger picture and the paths to get to ‘there’. On the web, he promotes himself vigorously in this regard.
I’m looking forward to the upcoming articles on Johnny Holland that go more into depth on the “Brains” versus the “Hands”. I’m even more curious how others knew when they had finally made the transition from the latter to the former, and what tipped them off.
By the way, are you comfortable being a ‘Hands’ or ‘Brains’ person? Do you have any desire to change?