Resource is a fundamentally inappropriate way to describe skilled, intelligent human beings with hopes, dreams and feelings. Soylent Green may be Made Of People, but People Are Not Resources.

Why? Because in knowledgework, people are not Plug and Play, Replaceable Parts.

It happens almost every day: someone I work with describes the people in the team as Resources, or worse, Resource. Or describes the process of selecting and onboarding the best suited people to the delivery organisation as Resource Management. It didn’t used to bother me, but now every time I hear it, it’s like nails down a blackboard.

If it were just my lily-livered weakness, that would be one thing. But fundamentally, thinking of people in this way will fail you in what you’re trying to achieve.

No matter how well you standardise work, clean architecture, and transfer and institutionalise knowledge, individual skills matter.

You can mitigate the worst of the variation using these techniques, and ensure a basic competence, but in any complex domain, it takes a long time to truly gain an appreciation for the behaviour of a system under untried circumstances. If your system is as broken as many (most?) longstanding systems are, this takes time and lots of experience breaking things. The moment you try to simply replace someone, or put them on an area where they do not have domain knowledge, you’re facing an instant productivity drop.

It’s divisive and disrespectful
Patrick McGoohan, in The Prisoner

This is not a Resource, this is a Free Man

Let’s be honest here — we don’t think of ourselves as Resource. We have the same inner voice as Patrick McGoohan’s character in the Prisoner: I am not a number, I am a Free Man. As soon as we start thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘other people’ we stop seeing them as individuals with value and capability, and instead understand them as a homogenous mass without agency, available to be directed with our brains. They become the people over there — pawns in our game.

Attitude and behaviour matter, and depend on intrinsic motivation

The Replaceable Parts thinking that the word Resource is based on uses simple extrinsic carrot and stick methods to drive motivation. Combinations of promises of money and punishments that are fundamentally violent to the individuals suffering them and actively damaging to the learning community you need to have in the context of exponential uncertainty that software development works within. To apply the necessary creativity and proactivity, you need intrinsic motivation, based on autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Replaceable parts don’t have autonomy, don’t need purpose and won’t have chance to develop mastery. But without this, you’re incurring one of the 8 deadly wastes – and when your output is entirely derived from the brains of your people, possibly the most significant one.

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The more we use the term Resource, the more we train ourselves into this way of thinking, and embed its false assumptions into our management style.

Next time your brain starts thinking the word Resource, interrupt it, before it comes out of your mouth. Whenever anyone else uses it, repeat back to them in confirmation, but using the word People instead (a better technique than openly correcting them). And don’t accept it from anyone you manage or mentor.

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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 People, Not Resources by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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