The role of a Contractor is to provide extra skilled capacity at short notice. The change you bring is to tidy up how the work is done, chiefly by example. Proactively expanding beyond that is a direct route to frustration and broken client relationships.

This is a follow-on to my introduction to helping roles. If you came straight into this article, please start there and come back.

This by far the easiest helping role to both request and fulfill. You’re providing extra capacity for your client, and your key outcome is throughput; doing more of whatever it is that your client needs to do, but doing it very well. In commercial services terms, this is known as simple body-shopping. They’re selling your skilled time, but without any expectation that you will do anything beyond what the client tells you. Jump says the client. How high? you ask. I used to joke with one client that they’d bought a capacity from us, and it was entirely up to them to use it productively, down to washing cars. And at the eyewatering extremely competitive rates we were charging, that’d be just fine.

The value you add is that you already have the needed skills and expertise to hit the ground running; to start creating quality output very quickly. And because you’re a temporary employee, you can overcome a short term capacity shortfall and leave at the end of it without the ongoing costs and expectations of a permanent employee.

The flexibility to start and stop extra skilled capacity quickly and efficiently is a risk transfer from the client to you, and taking on that risk has enough value to earn you a higher rate than the permies. Enough to either be taken by an agency or fund gaps between contracts.

In an effectively defined engagement, your client has already accepted the need for help and scoped what help they need, and generally don’t want anything beyond that, thankyou. Remember that the helping relationship is only effective when you are asked to help.

What you’re not being asked to do is change what work is being done beyond what’s explicitly in the contract. Offering additional kinds of help is absolutely going to change the relationship you have with your client, who has accepted you as a peer, but only within a contained realm. Try to expand that realm and you’re elevating yourself to The Expert and relatively speaking, diminishing your client. This could jeopardise your entire relationship, and risk what you already have. So bite your tongue and keep inside your box until asked. That’s a tough ask, I know. But at the end of the day, it’s their money. It’s about to be your money. If you’d like this situation to continue, you need to realise that mis-spending it is ultimately their choice, and you don’t have a right to tell them otherwise.

If your contract is about implementing change, then that’s your remit. But challenging how change is brought about comes into that same area of going beyond the help that’s been asked for.

There is one exception to this – the window through which you can effectively implement a small amount of change. You can implement change in areas that aren’t defined through your actions and providing a powerful example of how things should be done. Document thoroughly and clearly. Write tests first. Ensure your work is appropriately peer-reviewed. Design elegantly, but understand and respond to the trade-off against throughput.

Be prepared to discuss these things and how they’re part of doing the job with professionalism, should you be asked. Until then, keep it inside your head, and avoid strong likelihood of frustration and conflict.

Bootnotes

  1. Tack to @marcusoftnet for the original insight that Contractor and Consultant roles use the same word in Swedish.

  2. Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help
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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Helping Roles: The Contractor by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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