Dan Stroot

Individuals Matter

Hero image for Individuals Matter
6 min read

One of the worst cognitive biases which humans suffer from is the belief that observations about individual people can be generalized. How much faulty thinking, including racism and sexism, stems from this simple error? An extension of this common mistake is thinking of people as interchangeable, or fungible, when planning work - pretending who does the work doesn’t matter.

Individuals matter.

A pattern I've repeatedly seen is companies will plan out the next few quarters of work and then assign some number of people, one person for one quarter to a project, two people for three quarters to another, etc. This process enables executives to make decisions about costs, priorities and project funding. This works for it's purpose, however, the roadmap creation and review process perpetuates the fiction that people are interchangeable, that people can be generically abstracted over.

When the rubber meets the road, and it's time to start a critical project suddenly the people who are assigned to the project become very, very important. When work is about to begin on a specific project, the first questions asked are "Who is going to lead it? Who is going work on it?". We all know intuitively that the people who ultimately get staffed on the project make an enormous difference on the odds of success.

One of the primary jobs of managers at all levels is to plan and then execute in accordance with the plan. Good managers know which people get stuff done and how long something should take. Good managers can even adjust estimates based on individual productivity. This is how you build highly accurate plans – you must plan with the specific people in mind who will be doing the work. Only a direct line manager can do this, anyone else won’t have the knowledge of each person’s capabilities.

An Early Lesson Why Individuals Matter

A senior engineer had built a rather complicated system and was intimately familiar with all aspects of it. Whenever he estimated work for that system, he estimated it as if he were doing the work. In other words, how long would it take him to develop “X feature”? His estimates came with all the discovery work already done, and they were very accurate.

One day a manager proceeded to take an estimate from this person and assign it to a brand-new hire. When it was almost due, the brand-new engineer said something like "It's not done yet. I'm not really sure how long it will take, but I am learning a ton of cool stuff!" Needless to say, it could have gone better for me.

Later, when I was asked to estimate work the first question I would ask was “who is going to do it?”. Project managers were often surprised by the question, and frequently told me “It doesn’t matter”, as if we are all supposed to pretend that all people are equivalent.

Imagine if you wrote a novel and then decided you wanted your friend to write the final chapter, how long would it take them? How well would it turn out? They’d have to learn the premise of book first, right? Or maybe you’d give them an outline as a starting point? The end product might be better or worse than what you would have written, but even if they were brilliant they would take longer. Not that much different from programming really.

One of the more successful organizations I have had the pleasure of leading had a completely different approach - every estimate explicitly assumed a specific person handles it. Sometimes there were even variations given – e.g., several estimates for the same task depending on who it gets assigned to. No one ever found this odd. It was assumed it was obvious that different people have different skills and familiarity with different technologies or parts of the project.

Individuals matter.

Job Complexity Matters

If I have a job that only requires picking up rocks and placing them in a bucket, one could argue that “anyone could do it”, which is generally true. However even with unskilled labor there are considerable differences in output. How strong am I? How much stamina do I have? Even in this absurd example individual performance matters.

As we progress from “lifts rocks” to “performs brain surgery” the capability, knowledge, and skill of the specific individual increasingly matters. Hopefully none of us would choose a doctor by random selection using the mental model that they are “all the same”.

Technology jobs have progressed much like medicine – as technology has become more and more complex, jobs have become increasingly specialized. Increasing specialization, coupled with business knowledge tends to make individuals highly specialized (and really important to your company).

The more complexity in your business, and the more unique your business is, the more individuals matter.

The Type of Work Matters

Some tasks (or projects) just don't motivate me at all. Others are interesting and I have a hard time logging out at the end of the day. I think there's easily a 3x difference in my own personal performance between those. Could be more. What is your productivity difference when you work on something you are excited about and believe in vs. something you think is a waste of your time?

In addition to motivation there is skills alignment – this leads to the concept of the “10x” engineer. E.g. the rock star who is ten times as productive as the average engineer. Whether you believe in this idea or not, we can agree that some people are significantly more productive - and yet hiring for that trait is nearly impossible.

Why? Because they are only productive after they learn your systems, technology, and business practices. In other words, no one comes in the door as a 10x engineer. On the other hand, you can develop people into 10x engineers. This suggests that taking steps to retain highly effective engineers (by not ignoring the evidence that they are not fungible) is what is most important.

The other factor is engineers are usually only “10x” in narrow, specialized technology areas that they know well. If you move them to another team, using different technology and supporting a different business process they quickly revert to being average (at least until they come up to speed again). In other words, if we asked Lebron James to play soccer (play with his feet and not his hands) he might be far below average (and remain there).

Matching the right individual to the right work matters.

Our Bias Complements our Desire for Simplicity

When you have a complex system, for example a company with thousands of people, the system is too complex for any decision maker to really understand. Organizations are like fractals – the more you zoom in the more complexity you perceive/see.

One way to address this problem is by reducing the perceived complexity of the problem by simplifying the picture of the organization by creating organizational structure - groupings of people. For example, “business units”, “departments”, “subsidiaries”, “divisions”, etc. and imagining that people inside are fungible.

Unlike trying to understand the true complexity of the organization this structure is easier to grasp, it's scalable, and if there's one thing that companies like, it's doing things that scale. Large organizations also scale by tracking and managing “headcount” - and one of the ways to view people as fungible is budgeting in terms of headcount. The company, of course, spends money on specific people with specific skills, and not "heads".

There's no way to convert that into "two more effective and better-paid heads" because recognizing that everyone is different isn’t a scalable model. If you hire two rock-star staff engineers instead of three average "heads", the third "head", and the associated budget, will eventually get moved somewhere else.

The other main reason is organizations must be able to plan, at least at a macro level. Every team I have ever worked with hates planning; every team hates their methodology and thinks it’s senseless and inaccurate and why are those senior people insisting on a date? It’ll be done when it’s done.

On the other hand, business leaders often must plan around dates – e.g. “should we spend $50k announcing at conference Y next month, or should we wait?” “Our competition just launched; will we be able to launch this quarter (the board wants to know, and we have to report material financial impact items quarterly or face SEC fines)?”

Planning is absolutely necessary, and as noted earlier, one of the primary jobs of managers at all levels is to plan and then execute in accordance with the plan. The higher in the organization the manager the more abstracted “the plan” becomes from the people who actually accomplish the work – in fact it is often abstracted to stoplight colors: green, yellow, red. However, it’s the individuals doing the work that matter; who are the reason why something is green, yellow or red.

Individuals matter.

“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can offer with the cumulative force of a whole life's cultivation, but of the adopted talent of another, you have only an extemporaneous, half possession.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson


Sharing is Caring

Edit this page