About Johanna Rothman

Johanna consults, speaks, and writes about managing product development. She helps managers and leaders do reasonable things that work. You can read more of her writings at jrothman.com.

People Are Not Resources

My manager reviewed the org chart along with the budget. “I need to cut the budget. Which resources can we cut?”

“Well, I don’t think we can cut software licenses,” I was reviewing my copy of the budget. “I don’t understand this overhead item here,” I pointed to a particular line item.

“No,” he said. “I’m talking about people. Which people can we lay off? We need to cut expenses.”

“People aren’t resources! People finish work. If you don’t want us to finish projects, let’s decide which projects not to do. Then we can re-allocate people, if we want. But we don’t start with people. That’s crazy.” I was vehement.

My manager looked at me as if I’d grown three heads. “I’ll start wherever I want,” he said. He looked unhappy.

“What is the target you need to accomplish? Maybe we can ship something earlier, and bring in revenue, instead of laying people off? You know, bring up the top line, not decrease the bottom line?”

Now he looked at me as if I had four heads.

“Just tell me who to cut. We have too many resources.”

When managers think of people as resources, they stop thinking. I’m convinced of this. My manager was under pressure from his management to reduce his budget. In the same way that technical people under pressure to meet a date stop thinking, managers under pressure stop thinking. Anyone under pressure stops thinking. We react. We can’t consider options. That’s because we are so very human.

People are resourceful. But we, the people, are not resources. We are not the same as desks, licenses, infrastructure, and other goods that people need to finish their work.

We need to change the language in our organizations. We need to talk about people as people, not resources. And, that is the topic of this month’s management myth: Management Myth 32: I Can Treat People as Interchangeable Resources.

Let’s change the language in our organizations. Let’s stop talking about people as “resources” and start talking about people as people. We might still need layoffs. But, maybe we can handle them with humanity. Maybe we can think of the work strategically.

And, maybe, just maybe, we can think of the real resources in the organization. You know, the ones we buy with the capital equipment budget or expense budget, not operating budget. The desks, the cables, the computers. Those resources. The ones we have to depreciate. Those are resources. Not people.

People become more valuable over time. Show me a desk that does that. Ha!

Go read Management Myth 32: I Can Treat People as Interchangeable Resources.

Reference: People Are Not Resources from our JCG partner Johanna Rothman at the Managing Product Development blog.

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12 Responses to "People Are Not Resources"

  1. Claudio says:

    I’m agree.
    This is a valid question for managers and human resources.

  2. Stephen McConnell says:

    The problem is that too many “managers” are just bean counters, not leaders. I work for a large company and they are getting ready to do some “pruning” in a couple of months. People are running scared and morale is falling. This because managers can’t come up with better ways of “cutting the budget” than cutting people.

    But here’s the thing. In the accounting books, people are not “assets”, their salaries are “liabilities”. So, that’s how management too often looks at employees.

    But when they do that, in the long run, the company fails.

    So, when a company starts talking “massive cost cutting” and layoffs to support that, it’s time to start looking for other work, even if you are not the one being “laid off”.

    • Stephen,
      The language, “pruning” applied to people is wrong on so many levels I’m not sure where to start.

      If companies need to reduce costs, they have to start with their strategy, and reduce their project portfolio first. Then, when they know which projects and products they want to keep and which projects/products they no longer want to fund, they can decide which people no longer fit the strategy.

      The massive cost cutting nonsense makes sense only to Wall St, not to people who actually work and make products for a living.

      You are right. When bean counters take over the company, if they are not working strategically, it’s time to leave, regardless of whether you are being laid off or not.

      • Stephen McConnell says:

        “Pruning” was my term. You are right there is a business use for that term.

        I spent 20+ years in the military. We were constantly being told to do more with less. When a person was assigned to me, I had to use that person (no matter what their skill level) in the best way I could. If they needed training to bring them up to speed or finding a set of tasks that were right for their skill set, that was what one had to do. I started thinking about retiring from the USAF when I began to see bean counters managing rather than leading. (The fact that most of the guys working for me were not born when I came on active duty also had something to do with it.)

        This was a good article. I did enjoy it.

        • Thanks for your explanation.
          I do think we need to be careful with money. I am, in my business. I’m also strategic with the use of my projects–I practice project portfolio management. I practice agile (actually, personal kanban inside one-week timeboxes), because I realize more value that way.

          My philosophy is that the best managers are leaders. Once you separate the leadership from the management, all is lost. You’re just waiting for the company/organization to die.

          • Stephen McConnell says:

            Oh BTW. I was just “resourced” after 6 years with the company and each year getting the maximum evaluation possible.

  3. leo says:

    Management fashions are created for those who are in the top of the company, not for those who are working. At the same time, “agile” makes workers believe change is in theirs hands while this is not true. See http://www.leansimulations.org/2010/09/red-bead-experiment.html. Now ask yourself, why agile literature says NOTHING about your own company management criticism?

    • Leo, believing that people are resources is not a management “fashion.” It is a way of thinking about management and the organization. You and I do not believe that it is a helpful way of thinking about management and the organization.

      As for why agile says nothing about your own company management criticism? There are several reasons:
      – agile started as a development idea.
      – many managers are confused about their role in agile. What do they do and how do they lead and manage?
      – there are still people who say, “we don’t need managers in agile”

      We have to find ways to “criticize” our organizations. I prefer the word feedback. Sometimes we want managers to do more of what they have done, sometimes less. Managers are people, too. They have not always had good role models. Often, they have not. How can they learn to be better managers?

      I do like the red bead experiment. Thanks for adding the link.

      • Leo says:

        Hi Johanna

        – agile intends to improve the software development *process*
        – agile is focused on the developer way of working
        – the read bead experiment shows that an organization can’t improve its process except if these changes come from the top

        So it seems to me that many development process improvements are somewhat limited, not to say inocuous, if those in the top aren’t intending to do real changes. So I wonder what agile and things like that are *really* for.

        • Hi Leo,

          When agile started, it was a way for people to ship *anything*. If you can’t ship, using iterations and increments really helps. Limiting your backlog really helps. Helping your customer see you as a value-producing team, rather than an order-taking waitron really helps.

          You are correct, many process improvements are limited. In fact, Capers Jones has data on this. If you really want to improve your process, improve your management. After code reuse, management improvement is 4 times more likely to improve anything.

          This is why I write about management :-) When I put the management myths book together, there will be a section about “what you can do” after the introduction and them myth.

          Agile is about cultural change. Too few people realize that.

          I wrote a post about how Agile is not for everyone: http://www.jrothman.com/blog/mpd/2012/12/agile-is-not-for-everyone.html

          In my project management book, I discussed the four major lifecycles, and when to use each. Even waterfall has a time and place. But probably not every time for every project.

          You use agile when you can expect a lot of change in requirements and you want to check that what you are doing is right, for now. When you can build in increments. Agile might not be right for your team or your project or your culture. So, choose staged delivery or design to schedule. Those are incremental approaches that will allow you to see the product grow and get feedback, without being agile.

          Agile is not the Answer to Everything. Many organizations are finding it more effective than what they were doing before.

  4. Manikandan R says:

    I totally agree on this. I have the same thought as the author. That is why i coined a new term “Human Race” Manager for HR Manager instead of “Human Resource Manager”

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