People Are Not Cogs: How to Manage a Project with People, not Resources

Andy Silber | November 29, 2018

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In a factory, people are managed like a piece of equipment, a resource that is applied to a well-described task. Anyone who has been trained in this task can be assigned and the same result is expected. If not, the fault is in the process or training, not in the person performing the task. The goal in this environment is to minimize the variation in how the task is done regardless of who is doing it.

Jimmy Jia, founder and CEO of Distributed Energy Management, once told me, “One increases variation to increase innovation.” In other words, if you create tight processes that are very predictable (as in a factory), then you are guaranteed to get a predictable outcome and limit your possibilities for innovation.

So, how do you manage your resources to increase innovation?

You treat them like the people they are rather than the lifeless cogs in a machine that the term “resources” makes them seem to be. Without the diversity of approaches, skills, viewpoints, and personal history that people can bring to your team, innovation won’t happen.

Planning with People

One of the fundamental assumptions of project management is that resources are fungible—that if you need an electrical engineer, then anyone in a pool of electrical engineers will do. You might need to break your pool into smaller groups with specialized experience (e.g., antenna design, FCC certification, high-voltage electronics, low-voltage electronics), but within the group, anyone will do. You build your work breakdown structure, make your duration estimates, and calculate your delivery dates with a generic resource. When the time comes, the functional manager provides you with an actual person from the pool. For good or for ill, that person is not a cog, but an actual human being with strengths and weaknesses.

Imagine you have a team called “Desert Residents” that has two members: Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Both team members can manage the basics of the role (i.e., survive in a hot, dry environment), but they have different strengths and weaknesses. Road Runner does two things very well: run and go beep-beep. She runs fast and far and beep-beeps at just the right time to startled Wile E. Coyote. Road Runner will probably get your tasks completed faster than expected if they just require what she can do well. If you get Coyote, he’s going to take longer completing these basic tasks of running and beeping, but if you need someone who can carefully dissect a problem and create a solution that didn’t exist before solely out of parts from the ACME catalog, Coyote will complete those tasks and Road Runner won’t. Of course, most of Coyote’s ideas are overly complex and don’t work well, but that’s a subject for a different blog post.

As a project manager, you should understand the details of the tasks and the skills the team members have, and you should work with the functional manager to make sure that you get the right person on the team. During the planning stage, you need to identify the constraints of “We need Coyote on this project, and we’ll wait for him” or “I’m scheduling assuming I get Roadrunner, and I’ll be late if I get Coyote.” If you need to get a particular person, make sure to include some wait time in your schedule because you might not be the only one waiting for that particular person.

Understanding Team Dynamics

As a PM, you need to understand more than just the capabilities and efficiency of your team members, but also their work styles. Some hate to be micromanaged; tell them what they need to accomplish and by when, and then leave them alone. For others, you might need to explain the big picture in detail and how their tasks fit into it. Still, others want to be micromanaged and be told what to do every step of the way.

I once worked with an engineer at an off-site vendor who loved nothing more than a challenge. I would just say, “It would be great if the software could do XYZ.” Then, I wouldn’t contact him for a week or two. My patience was always rewarded when a solution to my challenge would just show up in my email box. He hated being “managed” but loved being challenged. It was hard for my management to understand that asking for updates and commitments was counterproductive.

Imagine one of your teams has three members: Moe, Curly, and Larry.

  • Moe is technically capable and a bully. He gets things done and occasionally has brilliant ideas, but he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.
  • Curly is funny and is constantly getting off topic. He sees problems differently than others, which sometimes leads to creative solutions.
  • Larry is quiet and gets his work done. His solutions aren’t very creative, and he’s not very fast; however, he is diligent.

You can’t manage these three “resources”; you need to manage three people, and they need different support from the PM. Here are some possible approaches:

  • With Moe, set rules on how to behave and how decisions are made. You need to stress that other ideas may be better than his, and even if they aren’t, they need to be respectfully considered. Quietly keep notes for HR and the functional manager, but hopefully, by setting clear boundaries and modeling proper team behavior, things will be okay. If the bullying persists be prepared to escalate. I strongly agree with Robert I. Sutton’s The No Asshole Rule, and regardless of Moe’s brilliance, if the bullying persists he needs to go.
  • For Curly, I would let his funny flag fly. Work can be overly serious, and someone having fun is worth the distraction, up to a point. Before it gets to that point, gently guide him and the team back to agenda. If he has an out-of-the-box idea, explore it enough to see if it’s valid or might lead to an interesting, unexpected solution.
  • For Larry, make sure he has appropriate work to do and knows when you need it. Update your schedule so that Larry has enough time to complete the tasks. If changes need to be made to the plan, implement them in the beginning before you’re running late with few options.

Having a team with three Moes, three Curlys, or three Larrys would be terrible. Without a Moe, you’re unlikely to get the complex solution you might need. Without a Curly, work just wouldn’t be as much fun, and you’d miss his distinct perspective. Without Larry, it would be difficult to get the critical, but mundane, work done. An innovative team is stronger with a variation in strengths and styles.

Embracing Diversity

Having a diverse team can be seen as a challenge when it’s actually a strength. Without a variety of viewpoints and experiences, it’s very hard to come up with something truly new. As you build your team, it’s much better to have people who can constructively disagree than having everyone on the same page. It’s your job as a team leader to make sure the energy is productive and the direction is towards a solution, without zooming past Curly’s crazy idea that just might work while quickly eliminating Coyote’s overly-complex solution that won’t work.