Management Myth 32: I Can Treat People as Interchangeable Resources


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.

Sherry continued, “You might not even realize it. When you talk about ‘resources’ and you mean people, you dehumanize people. That doesn’t create a great environment for our work. You can overcome that. But why should you have to? When you talk about FTEs, you assume a couple of things: that you will get part-time people, and that multiple people can effectively do the work of one person.

“Now, when people pair or swarm, you do get multiple people working together. That’s collaboration.

“But that’s not what this FTE business is all about. FTE work is when you have a part-time person on Monday and one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday and one on Thursday and one on Friday—and they may or may not coordinate their work. And supposedly they are all one FTE. You and I both know that unless they coordinate their work, they are not one FTE. They need to coordinate and collaborate. It takes a lot of work for two people to be one FTE, never mind five people.

“We don’t have interchangeable people here. We have unique people. We want teams that can work together. The people who do that are not resources. They are human beings.”

“OK,” David said. “Got it. No more people as resources. Now, what else do you need for this program?”

People Are Not Resources

When managers—especially senior managers—look at an organization chart, they see names in boxes. If the organization is large enough, they don’t even see names. It’s a problem. They miss the fact that human beings are inside the boxes—or, more likely, working in the space between the boxes.

Think about the word resource and what it means. The dictionary defines it as the usefulness of something. When managers use the word in organizations, they mean the ability of people to accomplish work.

I agree; it is useful for a person to accomplish work. But in software, we accomplish work in teams. Software is about learning through collaboration. Anything we do alone is interesting but not always pertinent to the work of the team. I bet you have been in situations where you prototyped something alone, tried to bring it to the team’s attention, and the team ignored you. However, if you prototype with a team—or even just one team member—the team is more likely to pay attention to your results. That is useful.

Alone, we are not resources. Together, as a team, we are.

Language Matters

The language we use matters to everyone. It is unfortunate that the department attending to employees is called “Human Resources.” That language colors what managers call people in the organization. If HR calls people “resources,” then it must be OK, right?

But the more you call people “resources,” the more they become interchangeable—and more like desks, or infrastructure, or something that is easily negotiable. One developer or tester looks just like another.

The fact that Tom is a wonderful facilitator and can ask great questions in a retrospective? Well, that doesn’t matter. Tom becomes interchangeable with James, who is a focused, goal-oriented architect-type person who enjoys mentoring others. Both are agile developers and both are people you would want on your team, but they are very different developers and very different people who would work on very different teams..

What Do We Need?

We need resources in organization to accomplish our work. We need desks, software, integrated development environments, and all kinds of infrastructure to produce great software.

We also need people who can work collaboratively in teams.

These two things are different. Let’s not forget that.

Resources are not people. People are not resources.

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