Management Myth 32: I Can Treat People as Interchangeable Resources

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Summary:

It is unfortunate that the department attending to employees is called “Human Resources.” That language colors what managers call people in the organization. But the more you call people “resources,” the more they become interchangeable—and more like desks, or infrastructure, or something that is easily negotiable. Resources are not people. People are not resources.

“David, I need a few things to make this program successful,” Sherry, a program manager, explained to her VP. “I need a team room for the core team so we can keep our kanban board on the wall. I also want a dashboard wall. That way you can see what’s going on.”

David grinned. “I’m going to like this already. OK, how about the Maui room?”

“You do realize I need this room for the entire duration of the program?”

“Yes. It’s a resource you need, so it’s yours.”

“Excellent!” Sherry said. “OK, let’s go on to some people issues. Some of our feature teams are not quite fully staffed. We’re short a tester here, a developer there. It’s not a huge problem right now. It will be in a month. I need your support when I go talk to the managers. I’m in problem-understanding mode right now.”

“OK, I’ll get you the resources you need.”

Sherry paused for a moment. She said, “David, did you just call the people ‘resources’?”

“Well, yes. Is that a problem?”

“To me it is.” Sherry paused, unsure if she should continue. What the heck, she thought. Let him know what his language means.

“When I think of resources, I think of desks, capital, software, hardware, infrastructure, and other things like that. Things. Not people. When you say ‘resources’, your managers take their cues from you. For example, I mean full-time people, permanently assigned as full-time people on these teams. Is that what you mean?”

“Of course.” David nodded in agreement.

“I bet that when you say ‘resource,’ not all your managers hear that,” Sherry said. “I bet some of them hear FTE—full-time equivalent people. You and I both know that FTEs will not help this program.

“We are going to have to show value from the start with this program. It’s going to be difficult. We need people who are committed to their teams. FTEs might be able to do that, but it would be so much more difficult. I want full-time people who are full-time committed. That’s what you want, too.

“When we use language such as ‘resources’ to refer to people, it’s legacy language from command and control days. It’s unfortunate that now we have ‘Human Resources.’ I liked it better when it was called ‘Personnel.’” They both smiled at that.

About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for Stickyminds.com and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website, jrothman.com, as well on createadaptablelife.com.

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