People are not resources

Let us stop using the degrading term

Uwe Friedrichsen

11 minute read

Johann Strauss statue (Stadtpark, Vienna)

People are not resources

It is summer. Most people try to enjoy the weather (at least when there is weather to enjoy). They do not want to rack their minds pondering mind-bending ideas. Therefore, I decided to pick some imo relatively straightforward ideas from my blog topics backlog for the next few posts. I hope they will still contain some food for thought for you.

The first topic that I want to discuss in this post is sort of “evergreen”:

People are not “resources”!

I still hear it almost every time I talk to a client that someone talks about “missing resources”, “resource planning”, “resource profiles”, and so on – not to mention the omnipresent “HR department”, the department that administers the “human resources”.

It bothers me every single time and I feel the urge to scream at those people: You talk about humans as if they were a pack of flour required to bake bread. Please, stop it!

It is especially odd for me if those people consider themselves “agile” at the same time. One of the core insights of the agile movement was that people are not resources. If someone calls people “resources” it makes it obvious that this person never understood what agility actually means.

To be fair: Most of those people mean no harm. They are just so used to this kind of terminology that they completely thoughtlessly use it all the time.

But if it is just a thoughtless use of terminology, why does it bother me if someone calls people “resources”?

Even if we leave aside the rudeness factor of calling someone “resource”, from all I know you will inevitably run into several problems beyond rudeness (which is bad enough) if you do that. Let us go through the most important ones.

The ethical problem

The ethical problem is related to the rudeness problem, but it goes deeper.

One of the abominations of industrial mass production was trying to fit humans into production processes like cogs in a big machine. It should be obvious that the mere idea goes against human nature. Still, the main driving force of most industrial technocrats was to create seamlessly working “production pipelines” consisting of standardized, easily replaceable parts – ignoring that many of these “parts” were humans.

At least in the earlier years of industrialization, humans were still needed to produce goods and were required to “fit” into the production pipelines of the technocrats. So, the technocrats decomposed the production pipelines into a series of moronic tasks that did not require any specific strengths of a human besides the mere ability to repeat mindlessly a series of dull actions endlessly in the same way: Humans being reduced to simple machines.

This is where the conception of “human resources” came from: Humans being reduced to “resources” for the production pipelines – easily replaceable manpower. As inhuman and despicable as the whole concept imo is, it still became widely popular for many reasons.

But no matter how popular the “human resources” approach became, in the end people are not easily replaceable “resources”, “heads” or “things”, they are unique individuals.

Thinking about humans like milk, flour or eggs on a grocery shopping list is a stark degradation of those people. The term for this behavior is “dehumanization”.

If you call people “resources”, you dehumanize them.

Understanding this should be sufficient for any mentally sane person to stop doing it immediately.

Additionally, if you think about people as if they are items on a grocery list, you will show it. Rest assured, the affected people will realize it – and they will massively dislike you for considering them mere “resources”. Every sane human hates that.

This will determine how they will respond to you, your needs and your problems. Should you ever need something from them beyond their simple execution of their duties, they will pay you back in kind. Another reason to think about humans as what they are: Humans!

To sum up:

Treating people like resources is dehumanization and thus deeply unethical.

The performance problem

The second problem is a more practical problem. If you think about humans like resources, you will start treating them like easily replaceable assets.

But in practice, individuals are not easily replaceable, especially not in mental work like software development. Every person has unique strengths and weaknesses. This means two persons with seemingly the same skills often deliver a very different performance regarding speed and quality of their work. It is also possible that one person performs better on job A and other person performs better on job B.

If you treat humans like ingredients for a recipe (“Just add 2 frontend developers, 1 backend developer and 1 database specialist. Stir, season with a pinch of project management and you are done.”), you will miss the often huge performance difference between these seemingly “interchangeable resources”.

I have seen big performance differences, up to a factor of 5 to 10, in some cases even more for “similarly skilled” persons. The reason for such huge differences cannot be found in the CVs of the persons. Their skill sets are quite comparable on paper.

Instead, you need to talk to them, interact with them, work with them to understand how they “tick” and develop an understanding for their sweet spots and weak spots. And even then, sometimes you will be surprised – in both directions. Humans are unique, after all!

Thus, if you neglect the individual strengths and weaknesses of people, your carefully crafted “resource planning” will go down in a breeze.

Additionally, humans do not work like machines. They work at a much higher variance:

  • They have good days. They have bad days.
  • They are brilliant the one day. They get nothing done the other day.
  • They radiate a contagious joy the one day. They are grumpy trolls the other day.
  • And so on.

If you neglect this fact, very likely you will have a rude awakening with your perfect “resource plan” as the unpredictable variance can easily kill it.

Simply relying on the average is a bold bet from my experience. Things do not simply make up for each other all the time. Additionally, sometimes you will have reinforcing effects – the one way or the other.

Performance is not a simple linear function of the number of people involved. At best, it sort of approximates a linear function over time. Quite often, it does not.

To sum up:

People have unique strengths and weaknesses, leading to very different performances with respect to a given task.

Additionally, humans work at a much higher variance than machines.

Ignoring these facts will let any “resource planning” go down in a breeze.

The team problem

The team problem often is underestimated a lot.

If you consider humans to be “resources”, you will be convinced that it is possible to build the perfect team just by looking at a bunch of CVs: Pick the “best resources” for the different positions and you are done.

This is a lot like comparing spec sheets of mobile phones: Which camera has the most megapixels? How many cores has the processor? And so on. While this approach for finding the perfect solution usually already hits its limits with mobile phones, it absolutely does so with humans.

Just bringing together the people with the highest respective qualifications does not mean that you will get a great team. Quite often you will be surprised that your “high performer” team only performs mediocre or even poor. But how can that be? They are the best of their craft!

The performance of a team is determined to a high degree by the quality of the collaboration and interaction of the team members. A Google study showed that factors like psychological safety (a consequence of the interaction patterns of the people involved) have a lot bigger impact on team performance than individual excellence. Google figured out in their study that most factors leading to high-performing teams are unrelated to the technical skills of the people involved.

Put simply: In most software development projects of today, teams of 5 persons who collaborate and interact well perform better than teams of 50 persons who collaborate poorly. 1

But good collaboration and interaction does not happen magically. It is a result of having the “right” people in the team, people who harmonize with each other, who trust each other, who treat each other respectfully, and many more things. This has to do with the character and the so-called “soft skills” of persons – traits you will never find in a CV.

It also has to do with the “chemistry” between people which is strictly mutual. You can only find out the team “chemistry” by putting the people together and observe the dynamics that emerge. Sometimes even the team members themselves are surprised by the emerging dynamics.

Overall, forming a good team that performs well is a rather challenging task. It is even more complicated for cross-functional teams where people do not speak the same “language”. If you accept that humans are individuals and not “interchangeable resources”, you may be successful. If you consider them being “resources” you can staff from CVs, most likely you will not.

To sum up:

High-performing teams are mainly defined by the interactions and dynamics between the individuals resulting from the individual traits of the team members. This has nothing to do with the technical skills found on their CVs.

The hiring problem

I wrote several times the things you find on a CV are not helpful to build high-performing teams. Does that mean that CVs are wrong per se?

No, I do not think so. Yet, their value is a lot smaller than most people assume.

From my experience they reveal 5% about a person at best. You find a basic listing of tools and technologies the people know.

It does not reveal anything about how well they have mastered those tools and technologies. It does not tell you how well they have understood the underlying concepts. It does not reveal if they know when not to use that tool or if they suffer from the hammer-and-nail problem (“If all you know is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”). It does not tell you if they know how to combine the tools and technologies listed on the CV in the most effective way. And so on.

Additionally, as written before, a CV does not tell you anything about the “soft skills” of a person, how they will interact with other persons, how they will respond to challenging situations, and so on.

Finally, a CV does not tell you anything about the talent, the development potential of a person. It only tells you partially and coarsely where the person currently is. But it does not tell you anything about how much they still can develop and how fast they will do.

All these things you can learn only from interacting with a person. And if you do so, you will realize that people who look interchangeable on paper, in reality are everything but interchangeable.

Thus, if you follow the “people are resources” fallacy, most likely you will invite and hire the wrong persons and end up with a mediocre workforce at best.

Only if you are aware, that humans are not “resources” and that their most valuable skills are not those that you find on their CVs, you will be able to identify and hire the right people – and to unleash their true power.

To sum up:

If you hire people by their “hard skills” as found on their CVs, you will fall short of your possibilities by far.

Summing up

There are definitely more problems that arise if you think of people as “resources”. But it should have become clear that this widespread bad habit is harmful:

  • The ethical problem imo is the gravest one, yet too often happily ignored by “efficiency-focused professionals”.
  • But the other problems I discussed in turn backfire against the “resource” thinkers, depriving them of most of their desired and adored efficiency.

Thus, if you really want high performance teams, first of all internalize:

People are not “resources”!

They are unique human beings, with all their differences and variances. Only if you keep that in mind, you will be able to unleash their power – which is good for you and them.

So, please stop talking about “missing resources” if you do not have enough people on your project. Please stop saying “resource planning” if you plan the work of humans. Please stop calling your personnel department “human resources”. It all leads the wrong way, away from where you actually want to be.

But how to call these things instead? Well, if you have internalized that people are not “resources”, it will be easy for you to come up with more appropriate names …

  1. For a basic discussion of the benefits of good team collaboration with reference to accompanying studies, see, e.g., this blog post. Even if I have not read the book myself yet (but it is on my reading list), the book “Debugging teams” by Brian W. Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman seems to contain good advice how to improve team collaboration. ↩︎