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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

People Are Not Our Most Valuable Resource

People

I hear that one from time to time: “people are our most valuable resource.”

Well, they are not.

People aren’t your most valuable resource. People aren’t goddamn resource at all. People are, well, people. Individuals. Folks who somehow like to be treated as real persons and not precious pieces of junk otherwise known as servers and such.

Every time I hear this cliché about people being most valuable resource I wonder: how the heck can you say people are most valuable when you treat them as resource? As commodity. As something which can be replaced with another identical um… resource. If you say that, you basically deny that people in your organization are important.

And it doesn’t really matter how hard you try to avoid calling people with that name. If you believe they are (put here “most valuable” or whatever bullshit you like) resources you won’t trick them. They won’t feel respected and they won’t trust you. Why should they after all? Do servers trust project leaders? And no, that won’t make people motivated whatsoever.

I know, this is a rant. But this makes me crazy. I mean, how could we learn such humiliating behavior? I’m just waiting until I hear “Hi resource” instead of “Hi Jane” when Mr. I’m-So-Damn-Important-Project-Manager meets one of his project team members.

Then, I’m going to hurt somebody. And I guess it won’t be Jane.

in: project management, team management

22 comments… add one

  • Shmuel Gershon March 16, 2011, 1:03 pm

    Pawel, this reminds me of a Dilbert strip, where pointy-haired-boss says to the team: “We discovered people isn’t our most valuable resource… Money is!” :)

    In a sense he is right: if all you can see are dry ‘resources’, then money will trump that every time.

  • AlanJS March 16, 2011, 2:35 pm

    Nice post, I guess the same goes to “most valuable asset” :-)

    And one more thing, when you get mad, be careful not to hurt another valuable resource…
    Cheers!

  • pops March 16, 2011, 10:55 pm

    > People aren’t your most valuable resource. People aren’t goddamn resource at all. People are, well, people. Individuals. Folks who somehow like to be treated as real persons and not precious pieces of junk otherwise known as servers and such.

    Definitely not a rant. You nailed it. #grins.

    I remember doing a tweet which went somewhat on the lines of, anyone who refferes to people as resources is either a a@#hole or has the potential of becomming one.

    Good post.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 16, 2011, 11:25 pm

    @AlanJS: Aaaargh!!! :)

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 16, 2011, 11:26 pm

    @pops: Most of them already are, but they rarely realize the fact. Which is sad.

  • John Hunter March 17, 2011, 4:49 am

    I don’t have any problem with the word resource (I know lots of people seem to get excited about it). What I care about is behavior and organizational systems that embody respect for people. I have never seen much correlation between those and the use of the word resource for discussing the role of people in organizations. Maybe others do see that difference.

    http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2007/06/18/people-are-our-most-important-asset/
    http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2008/10/07/motivate-or-eliminate-de-motivation/
    http://management.curiouscatblog.net/2008/11/05/righter-incentivization/

    The idea that people need to be treated like people I agree with. I just think focusing on the use of words resource and asset isn’t the right focus and I don’t see the correlation to bad behavior by those using those words.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 17, 2011, 11:26 am

    @John: I do see correlation between how we put our thought into word and our behavior. It’s an interesting observation but as a rule of thumb: if someone asks me for resources to their project and call people with their surnames instead of first names (like they were star athletes or something) it exactly shows how much respect they have for people they’re going to work with.

    This may be something culture-dependent but basing on support I get on this one form different parts of the world I guess the problem is general.

    My theory is: if you don’t respect people you think about them in terms of resources and, you want it or not, you refer to them as resources. And the other way around: if you respect people you care enough to think about words you use when talking about them. Change resource into asset or headcount or (my recent favorite) executive element but as long as you don’t tell me about Jane or Joe I don’t see you’re talking about real people – our colleagues working next door.

  • Peter Z March 17, 2011, 3:07 pm

    Great post. A friend of mine (working in bit IT corporation) was just telling me about the same case: what awkward feeling he had when his manager calling him “a resource” in email addressed to him directly. I guess in majority of corporations this is a common practice. People should fight against it, at least in smaller companies. Hence your post can wake up some minds :).

    I wonder what’s the reason for this tendency. Apparently it’s easier and cheaper to control a general “resource”, than to deal with people individually. Once you have too many people to manage and too little time for them, this generalization trend is natural.

  • Rafal March 18, 2011, 5:06 am

    I certainly not agree with your point of view, Paweł. It is obvious people are not things, commodities or whatever else comes to your mind, but when I schedule a project, propose it or estimate costs I cannot afford to think about janes, jones, peters ect. I look at the requirements, estimate and say : hey, I need 4 programmers and one web master. Then I check schedules of other projects and see that Jon, Adam and Joanna finish other project next week so I can *use* them right away. I dont think if they are in the mood to do this project, nor if they want to. Probably there are companies that can do such a thing, many cannot. I will just assign them to project, brief, coach and help in any way possible. And of course, during the project I will treat them as people, try to have insight in their thoughts, needs and personal matters than can affect their work (say, 1 or 2 days of holidays to see with family or such) but still – they will be assign to the project based on their skills, availability and other “traits” that not necessairily come with term “person”. Thus, when it comes to project planning and supervision – they ARE resources.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 18, 2011, 3:11 pm

    @Peter: I think Rafał kind of answered the question about the reason of the tendency in above comment – it’s just easier and companies “can’t afford” to think about individuals.

    I can’t say I get it or agree with it or even accept the way it is but I do acknowledge the fact it is a perfectly normal situation in many workplaces.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 18, 2011, 3:25 pm

    @Rafał: I could share a long list of stories where not taking into consideration people’s individual issues and motivations ended up in serious project problems.

    I could point how much work results are affected by such intangible aspects like motivation or even simple contentment with performed tasks. Showing how these results stack up to project success or failure is trivial.

    I could share my experience how making individuals feeling important and cared about ended up in long and very beneficial employer-employee relation.

    But then, if the only thing you care about is to get this project done somehow and you neither care nor are interested in what they can give the company in the long run, e.g. longer than length of your project, you might as well take just a first bunch of developers and a web master who are available at the moment.

    You don’t build a team here, do you? And it won’t hurt you when they are leaving, as long as it is at least a minute after project closure. If so, then we have completely different perspectives and we follow completely different values. No surprise we don’t agree on this one.

  • Rafał March 21, 2011, 6:58 am

    @Paweł: I do agree (and strongly at that) that considering people’s individual issues is a right way to go. Thinking otherwise would be just plain stupidity. If I know that my developer’s wife is pregnat I do not “place” this guy into delivery phase of the project when the time is near ect. Also, as I said: during the project it IS important to have an insight into employees concerns, worries and needs. What I only said that many companies (the one I am working for included) have certain business needs for projects (IT in my case). If I am able to choose between developers I will think about their preferences (who prefers web projects, who planned holidays, who wants to work with whom). But before that (or in parallel) I will asses the difficulty of the system, review requirements, estimate. To do it, well, in a realiable way I will assume “generic” programmers, “generic” web designers, “generic” DB admins ect. I will use resources with such names. That is, because IF something happen (sick leaves, promotions, changes of company) I am still albe to deliver a product. It may seem that it wont hurt if this or that employee leaves is without consequences but of course it isnt. It does hovewer enable for contigency planning and doing the job done. Also, as department I run is not a big one, unfortunately I dont have spare res… ok, people :-) And the list of “necessary” projects is long. Yes, I can wait a week, two so that the other thing I am supervising is finished so I can achieve som synergy or contentment with team. I usually do. But the world is not ideal and I dont work for google. I/we create software that is needed, not exactly one that is fun to play with. So, if company tells me that we’re introducing new business strategy, it will increase profit and we need a software for this ASAP, well, only thing I can do is say “ok, I will have my programmers free in two weeks, thay can start on this then”. Indeed, not much of a team building in this. If I started my own, software only company… well, in that case I will try and heed your wisdom.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 22, 2011, 1:45 am

    Now you speak :)

    We aren’t that far from each other in terms of organizations we work for. I second your approach to build whatever required by the business – we’re here to do the dirty work, not to choose what would be the nicest and most pleasant application to build. After all someone has to pay our salaries and it usually happens they are clients who do so they basically decide what we build.

    Anyway, reading the last comment I believe our approach to people doesn’t differ that much either. I still prefer to work with Joes and Janes instead of generic programming resources even if I plan. Actually I believe it is better that way even with the planning. After all you don’t have generic programming resources in your team – Jane has different strengths and weaknesses than Joe and exchanging one with another will not leave your plans unchanged.

    It doesn’t mean I don’t have contingency plan. It means mine is better :) as I have to take into consideration all people-related issues I know of.

  • Dan March 22, 2011, 3:33 am

    Well said. Thank you.

  • pops April 1, 2011, 2:02 am

    > I still prefer to work with Joes and Janes instead of generic programming resources even if I plan. Actually I believe it is better that way even with the planning.

    Totally.

    And the difference in productivity between Jane and Joes (as per some research explained in books by Stephen McConnell) is up to 10x, so if you don’t care to differentiate between people and are just assigning tasks to a ‘resources’ are you even planning? My humble opinion here is that, any plan which doesn’t consider the actual people working on the task is not a plan; it’s just a random guess at best and a CYA document at worst. Most CYA documents are easier to write than doing real thinking or getting to know people, so most managers tend to lean towards these.

    Besides, the first few chapters Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art (Best Practices (Microsoft)) by Steve McConnell says that plans don’t have to be precise. They are often in ranges or highs and lows which allows you to factor the skillsets of your people in your plans. As far as I can recollect there are also clear mentions of knowing the strengths and weaknesses of people and the 10x productivity factor in the book.

    The whole generic resource planning argument is an excuse most organizations give to take the easy path to software development. The harder more effective part is, know your people really well and co-ordinate, and don’t plan. (But that’s a whole new discussion all together). #grins.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 1, 2011, 3:23 pm

    @Pops, What I find pretty common is that companies don’t give a damn about any reasonable estimating, using some wild-ass guesses multiplied by two instead, let alone caring about differences between Jane and Joe.

    And yes, that’s some sort of easy path. And yes, that’s another story.

  • Bill Mash August 18, 2012, 12:25 pm

    This article treats the word ‘resource’ as if it’s a two four-letter words in one. It isn’t.

    The first time I heard this quote ‘cliche’ was way back in Social Studies class in middle school. The discussion was centered around resources, you know oil, gas, trees, green eggs and ham. I have taken this ‘cliche’ as a life’s principle and am proud of it. Besides I got the question right when he asked the class:-)

    Cheers,

    Bill Mash
    Without a Roof

  • Andrzej Lorenz August 22, 2012, 8:16 am

    Referring to people as resources is in alignment with “planning” projects the way you assign percentage of a resource to certain items/projects. The basic flaw here is that projects are not done by resources that can be utilized, they are done by teams consisting of real people who interact and form unique relationships.

  • Shane November 7, 2012, 8:11 am

    A poorly written article full of fallacies and surmises.

  • JD June 10, 2013, 11:48 am

    I guess we should just start referring to HR as H.

  • blakeyp00h July 22, 2014, 1:22 am

    Excellent post. Couldn’t agree more with your words. Anyone who doesn’t agree with your words is either in denial or very confused.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Sincerely,

    Non-Asset, Non-Resource a.k.a. Human Being

  • jerry September 26, 2014, 12:02 am

    obviously you are a plant for the corporate elite. You cannot have a government without a tax base period.

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