Clearance Rate April 2019 • 3 minutes

Clearance rate is a term used in criminal justice to evaluate crimes solved by the police. I have been thinking more about the applications it has to doing knowledge work. I think something I have come to appreciate about productive people is that they have a high clearance rate. By that I mean, of the projects they undertake, the likelihood that they actually get done is high.

I feel sometimes like the rate at which I can clear projects is accelerating, but often not faster than the rate at which I am accumulating them. As time goes on I get better at doing the work, faster and more efficient, but that just means more projects for me to clear. The problem is when my clearance rate becomes the new default, and then I go into crunch time again it breaks. I might start measuring my clearance rate more formally to figure out what overwhelm looks like.

Clearance rate is also something that is valuable to get from the people you are working with. You want to assume that most of the emails you send that require answers get answered. Often it can be hard to tell what is and isn’t being followed up on, unless you have enough time to actually follow-up on it. It’s frustrating when people commit to something and then don’t clear it, I think people call this accountability but in most cases that’s not what it is. It’s simply whether or not people clear things and if so how fast. The people who do clear things seem to attract projects like a magnet. That is where the concept of a competence tax comes into play.

Competence tax is when someone competent ends up doing more work for the same pay or in the same number of hours as someone in the same role who is less competent. If you picture a job that’s hard to measure, like knowledge work, you actually don’t benefit that much from doing more work faster. If you do piece work, work in sales, are a professional athlete, the CEO of a company, or something else measureable, you do. Most other jobs actually have the opposite problem: the competent people are weighed down by their work. And the reason is that the whole system is taking for granted their superior clearance rate.

Unions solve this by forcing everyone to be equally incompetent. Not a great strategy but at least competent people know to avoid working for one or face the competence tax. Competitive businesses though just seem to thanklessly absorb the benefit of having staff that clear more projects. If you’re the staff, you should try to find a way to make it measurable. If you’re the business, pay them more. If you’re the union, figure out how to set the pace based on the most competent person, not the least competent one. It would be nice to think that people would factor competence tax into things like bonuses, vacation time and such as a way of recognizing that some people simply do way more useful things than others in the same role.

If we measured the personal clearance rate that we have, it should go up month over month and year over year. Really the only way to do that is to look at it like a sport. You have to keep increasing your numbers just to stay competitive with others who are doing the same. Otherwise you will actually fall behind on a relative basis and have to walk back the expectations of those around you. This might include investing in learning, tools, focus, energy management, health, relationships, new skills and anything else that contributes to a higher clearance rate. And it might also mean as your clearance rate goes up, finding ways to measure and leverage it.