Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

I understand how plumbing works. I know how to use a pipe wrench and Teflon tape. I’ve often explained the mechanics behind a water heater, and even shown a group of curious Cub Scouts how a toilet works. But when a faucet breaks or a pipe leaks, I don’t reach for my toolbox. I call a plumber.

Why? Because no matter how much I may know about plumbing, the plumber knows more. I may have the skills to install a faucet, but he’ll do it in far less time, with fewer mistakes (and far fewer expletives).

I can think of any number of tasks for which my approach is similar. I take pride in knowing how to do many things, but I also recognize that performing many of those tasks isn’t the best use of my limited time.

It goes back to that concept I learned in an Economics class – the one called “opportunity cost.” The simple definition of the term is what you give up when you make another choice. For example, if my billable time were worth $100 an hour, and it took me six hours to install a faucet (including the two inevitable trips to the hardware store), my opportunity cost was the lost opportunity to bill my clients for $600 of time. If a plumber charged $250 to install the same faucet, I end up with a net income of $350, compared to $600 in lost potential revenue.

“They believe that doing things themselves saves the company money.”

It’s a tough concept for many people to grasp. Even among those who understand it, it’s a difficult one to practice. They believe that doing things themselves saves the company money. That’s why the CEO doesn’t think twice about driving down to the store to pick up some office supplies, instead of having them delivered. But the few dollars she saved by not opting for delivery is more than offset by the loss of her work time. (It’s right up there with the guy who drives five miles across town to save 3 cents on a gallon of gas.)

You’re using your time most efficiently when you use it to do what you’re best at, which is presumably how you’re earning your living. That’s why most companies prefer to have their employees serving specialized roles. You don’t expect your sharpest sales rep to balance the books, too. Put marketing in charge of logistics, and you’d have lots of attractive signage to cover up the chaos. And if your engineers were told to make travel arrangements, they’d hand you an incredibly precise itinerary two days after the plane left. Generally speaking, specialization increases efficiency.

The same holds true for tasks such as writing and graphic design. You may have the basic skills, but odds are that it’s going to take a lot longer for you to develop materials than it would for a professional who focuses on that kind of work. And what happens to the rest of your workload when you’re spending hours immersed in trying to string together the right sentences?

I’m not questioning your ability to write. In fact, you may be quite a skilled writer. But just as the CEO probably isn’t making the best use of her time by comparison-shopping printer ink, the time you spend writing would probably be better used handling your primary job function. Face it, your plate is already pretty full, and writing your own copy may not be the most efficient way to empty it.

Time isn’t the only reason it may not make sense for you to handle your own writing or similar projects, particularly if the materials are for the outside world. That’s because you may just be too close to what’s going on. You know all the inside information, and your view of everything is shaped by internal attitudes and concerns. An outsider will bring more objectivity to the process and be better able to point out how your audience might not come away with the same impression of what you plan to say.

Being somewhat detached helps in another way, too. When an outsider does the work under your direction, you have the opportunity to review and edit it with more objectivity. You don’t have to worry that your comments will reflect negatively on the person in the next office or department. And if someone else finds fault with it, you can deflect those criticisms.

One other reason it makes sense to look to outside help is that your particular skills may not be the best set for the nature of the project. For example, the style of writing most of us learned in school falls flat when it comes to communicating with key stakeholders. An outside pro will know how to present your messages in the most effective and impactful ways.

The greatest benefit of turning to an outsider is that even though you may not have done the actual work, you get the credit for it – along with the recognition that you made the best possible use of your time. That makes you look no less industrious, and a heck of a lot smarter!

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