Teams, People and “Resources” – The Culture of Agility

In an Agile culture, it is considered rude to refer to people as “resources”. People are not fungible – you cannot just take any old developer and plug them into any old project. Skills, personalities, likes, talents, potential all are so dynamic and unique for each individual person. So any management theory (including traditional project management) that treats people as “resources” like oil, gold or computers, is making an unjust simplification at the expense of the people working in the organization.

Yet organizations need to be able to plan where to spend money, and certainly the people working in an organization are often one of the largest costs. From a financial perspective, from a business perspective, it makes sense to somehow treat people costs in the same way as other operational costs… and this often leads to dehumanizing people to the point of treating them like resources.

So how can these legitimate organizational needs for budgeting mesh with the equally legitimate approach of Agile to treating people as unique actors be merged? It is actually quite simple, but the ramifications are deep: treat TEAMS as resources. Teams become the fundamental building blocks of an organization. Teams move from project to project or program to program or operation to operation. There is still a need to support the individuals in an organization, but it is done in the context of teams.

An Agile team is cross-functional, but also constantly learning. Individuals on the team learn skills based on their own interest, but also based on the needs of the team for redundancy, parallelism, and expansion of capacity to take on new, more challenging work. Cross-functional teams can more easily (and more sanely) be compared for their value to the organization by looking at things such as their ability to produce finished product/services, their flexibility in serving the needs of the organization, and the quality/consistency of the work they produce. Teams can compete in a healthy way by striving for excellence in delivering value to the organization, whereas often competition between individuals can be quite unhealthy.

From a budget perspective, teams are easy to manage: each team has a fully loaded cost based on salaries, space, equipment, etc. The cost is (or can be) relatively stable or grow predictably, and can still be handled operationally. As well, unlike individuals, it is much easier to treat a whole team as a fungible unit: you feed work to teams based on their availability rather than based on a detailed analysis of their skills/capacities/allocations.

In Agile organizations, teams are resources, people are not.

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