Breaking News: Team Members are Humans.


I’ve recently attended an instance of a virtual training course on interviewing job candidates. While the course and trainer were great – make no mistake here! – there was one thing that made go ballistic.

While portaying the benefits of the specific interviewing approach, about 5 slides in, the “Utilization Rate” was named as one of the most important metrics of a successful hire.

Come again?!

I’ve then asked what “Utilization Rate” meant and it was exactly as I feared:
The amount a hired person was being busy on a given project.

Utilization is good for machines

Coming from regular business education I know that a lot of traditional management practice revolves around making sure resources are used to their maximum efficiency.

After all if you pay a resource for time you may as well make sure you’re getting the most output in that time.

This works well on the factory floor. With machines.

If you are renting, let’s say, a assembly robot, for a rate of 1000$/day flat you better make sure that robot is assembling like hell distributing the fixed cost over more pieces produced.

This theory worked well there so why not transfer it into the office?

People are not machines

The difference with people is that people are not machines.

People are not steady in their output, not do they perform the same under 50% workload as they do under 90% workload.

If you look at the concept of “Slack time” this describes that when doing time management you should always have more than 20% of buffer available for dealing with interruptions, unplanned work or plain socializaton.

People with near 100% utilization are very rigid in their schedule and unable to cope with rapidly changing requirements. They also become robot-like having zero time for their colleagues, which actually hinders them in getting things done, as the informal (social) networks are oftentimes the key differentiator between someone who could and someone who can.

Looking at other literature, for example “Focus” by Daniel Goleman, a key factor in creative, breakthrough thinking is the ability to be able to control the flow of your work including time with no specific commitments.

Furthermore  – looking into all the learning and community initiatives – all of those make you  more connected, knowledgeable and ultimately a happier person. When should you do all this if you are near 100% utilized? In your off-hours?

Keeping skills and networks active and cultivated makes sure that people that are effective today will STAY effective tomorrow.

Truth be told – going for high utilization will give you better results in the short term. But with our rapidly changing world constant investment must be made in education and personal development.

With near 100% utilization there is no time to make that happen. In the long term this will mean that any “resource” will become less effective and fast.


Why even care for utilization?

I believe it comes from the thinking that a manager has to know that everyone is busy. But why would that be necessary?

Looks like classical Theory X thinking:


Image stolen from:

If you assume your workforce is made up by Theory X people you have to assume people will try to trick you as soon as an opportunity presents itself. That would require a lot of command & control because you cannot trust a Theory X person.

 Fortunately no human being is a Theory X person.

All human beings are Theory Y people, striving for purpose in life, trying to get enjoyment and fulfilment in what they do.

Don’t believe me? Read “Drive” from Dan Pink or “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek.

So how come some people act like Theory X? It’s mainly because their environment drives them to do so. Because they are incentivized to act like Theory X.

Think about it. If the environment assumes you are a Theory X and you are evaluated and measured by utilization, what would you do?

You would do what gives you the most benefit in the given environment – thus you make sure you are looking as utilized as possible.

If you are a motivated worker you may even do a great job DESPITE of the environment (or try to change the environment, but that’s a different story).

Getting to Y

Looking at the things that exemplify a Theory Y person it looks like this is the person you would want to work with.

So how do you get there? Easy. It’s all about trust.

“Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done. ”

– Principles behind the Agile Manifesto (

Trust is central to Agility.

You have so many talented people in your teams. People with rich experiences, a large inventory of education and perhaps even a healthy amount of humor.

How come you trust these people to arrive at work every day, navigating 66% of the rest of their life on their own, but as soon as they have entered the office floor you treat them like unreliable, greedy, selfish idiots that need constant supervision?

You already have the team you need to get the job done.

Trust in their ability to solve the issues in your project. Give them the freedom to act without having to come to you for approvals constantly.

Establish an understanding of and and agreement on the goals and why they are worth achieving and the rest will come  naturally.

Measure by Results

In the end it does not matter that everybody was very busy on your project. It does not matter that you can show that all of your resources were 98% utilized.

The only thing that matters is what the project can deliver and if the results are what the client & business need.

That is why in Agile we have empowered teams that focus on goal attainment while the manager steps back. That is why we focus on servant leadership to ENABLE all of the workforce to do the best they can.

  • Establish goals that are worth attaining.
  • Explain the why and listen for questions and new perspectives you might have missed.
  • Create a shared understanding and agreement of the road ahead.
  • Get the heck out of the way.
  • Be available and open to answer questions on the way and help out if someone is in trouble.
  • Trust your team to get the job done, because they will.

People are not things. Don’t treat them like things.