People are Unique, not Interchangeable

December 9, 2011

The term full-time equivalent (FTE) is a unit of measure and is as generic as you can get when talking about people. The use of terminology like FTEs or project planning exercises that allocate resources to projects (still general, but better language), coupled with standardized approaches to performance management can create a mindset that people are more interchangeable than they really are.

I’ve had experiences in the past where an “available resource” was plugged into a project to fill a hole in a project plan without regard for the skills and abilities required to actually make the project successful. Close enough was regarded as good enough. Needless to say, this never works well for the project team or the person assigned to a project.

Management is definitely an art because people are unique. Each and every one of us possesses certain knowledge, skills, experiences, perspectives, and preferences that make us unique. We have our own strengths and weaknesses; the key for management is to help people turn all of this into actual performance.

To do this, managers must talk to each individual to collaboratively shape the future based on the needs of the organization and the skills, abilities and personal preferences of each individual. I’m not big on improving weaknesses. In the long run, it takes a lot more time and effort to correct weaknesses than it does to determine how to leverage someone’s strengths. And let’s recognize one reality: Everyone lacks something in other people’s eyes. Yet these same people are finding ways to succeed.

What is most important is exploring what role is best suited to that individual based on their strengths, preferences and long-term goals. And perhaps there are intermediate roles that a person can fill on the way towards a greater role, one that allows them to learn new things, to gain new experiences and deal with fresh, new challenges that stimulate additional growth.

Another reality is that a certain mix of people work better than others. Successful projects are invariably staffed with people who have a certain diversity of skills and personalities that combine in ways that everyone’s strengths are leveraged to the greatest extent possible with the least amount of friction. Assigning people to projects and nurturing the development of the team as a whole to reach a high-performing, frictionless state is an exercise involving:
  • Inspiration
  • Commitment
  • Accountability
  • Candor
  • Complimentary skills
  • Trust
Naturally, not every assignment is a great fit, and we can’t tailor work to meet everyone’s personal preferences all of the time. Like most adult activities, there’s always compromise involved. The key is to know when you are making that compromise and to understand the impact of that compromise on the individual.

I’ve often heard that people join companies, but leave bosses. Think about it. Exit interviews can often reveal why people are leaving, and many times it is because they don’t feel valued or inspired (or both). I’m a firm believer that people want to make a difference and they want to be a part of something meaningful. They want to matter and they want what they do to matter, to make meaningful contributions. They want to learn and grow.

All of this speaks to treating people as unique individuals, not interchangeable resources. Seek to capitalize on each person’s unique capabilities. Help people to uncover how they can make a difference; the upside is tremendous.