My book on software development metrics is in the final stages of editing. The editor made a kind comment about one section of the book. She wrote: “This section is marvelous. I wish all management everywhere would read this and pay attention.” Me, too. This is the section:
This may be the mother of all management anti-patterns. Management science has treated human beings as interchangeable machine parts at least since the time of Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” in the early 20th century, and possibly much longer than that. Even today, many managers loosely refer to workers as “resources” without realizing the implications of the word.
A resource is an asset whose performance can be calculated and predicted with a high degree of accuracy and precision. For example, as I write this, I’m sitting in a chair. Should the chair break, I can sit in another chair. The new chair will immediately function equally as well as the old one did before it broke. The chair requires no training before it can carry out its function. It has no mood swings and never gets tired, sick, or hungry. It doesn’t take vacations or need to pick up its ottoman from furniture daycare. The chair doesn’t worry about other chairs from the same furniture factory that may be going through a rough patch. The new chair doesn’t have a different personal style of chairness than the old chair. It doesn’t interact differently with the other chairs in the room than the old chair did. It’s easy to calculate the number of chairs necessary to seat 10, 100,
or 1,000 people. The chair is a resource.
When team members leave, you can replace them. But the replacements won’t perform at 100% capacity instantaneously. They may have general qualifications similar to those of the former team members, but not identical experience. They will each have a personal style of doing the job. They will get tired, hungry, and sick from time to time. They will take vacations and need to pick up their children from daycare. They will have hopes, fears, professional goals, mood swings, headaches, good days, and bad days. They will worry about family members and friends who may be going through a rough patch. They will have unique personality types and cognitive styles and will create a new dynamic of personal interactions on the team. It isn’t straightforward to predict the impact on team performance when a team member is replaced. A team member isn’t a resource. A team member is a human being.
When you measure people and predict their performance as if they were resources, it’s highly likely that you’ll miss important information and cause unintended behavioral side effects.
The words we use influence the way we think and act. When managers refer to human beings as “resources,” they tend to treat people like “things.” It happens insidiously. The managers don’t consciously think of people as things, but their language guides their actions. This appears to be a very widespread and deeply-ingrained habit in nearly all organizations. When you hear someone in your organization refer to a person as a “resource,” I hope you will mention it to them. Maybe the habit can be changed.
If you find the subject interesting, here are additional rants that may amuse you: