Book Review: Peopleware by DeMarco and Lister – Part 3: the right people

This is the third in a series of articles providing a chapter-by-chapter in-depth “book club” reading of Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister’s book “Peopleware”, 2nd edition.

Part 3 is dedicated to find and nurture the right people.

Common mistakes

One common mistake is to hire people who can uniform with the team or the company (I experienced this in several interviews) but the person who matters most is the one who doesn’t think like all the rest.

“The need for uniformity is a sign of insecurity on the part of management “.

Another common mistake is to require standards of dress, therefore removing considerable discretion from the individual. The message is clear: people are not appreciated for their real worth and their contribution is not as important as their haircut and neckties.

Often people are hired after that their skills for the position have been tested but then the person could move to a different position after a couple of years with different tasks.
Better aptitude tests would be not only left-brain oriented but more holistic. One idea is to hold an audition: ask the candidate to prepare a short presentation of some past work (he chooses the subject) and having it in front of the new co-workers.

Turnover

Every new hire costs on average 2,3 months to be at full working capacity. Moreover there are hidden costs: in an organization with high turnover (more than 50%) nobody is willing to take the long view, workers have no feelings of long-term involvement, management think of its workers as interchangeable parts and no one feels loyal.

The best companies tend to have long periods before one gets promoted and a flat and low career (because the turnover is low); they prefer to re-train than fire someone and hire a new worker because that helps to build the mentality of permanence and a strong sense of community.

Methodology with capital M

A paragraph is dedicated to the methodology as a solution of having mediocre people. A methodology being a general systems theory of how work shall be conducted. The authors conclude that it does not make sense:

  1. It produces a lot of paperwork and voluminous documentation; it is part of the problem and not part of the solution
  2. Scarcity of methods: to standardize one method is to exclude the others
  3. Absence of responsibility: if something goes wrong the people will blame the methodology; they will never accept responsibility if they don’t get acceptable freedom as well.
  4. Loss of motivation

Nothing could be more demotivating than the knowledge that management thinks its workers are incompetent.

What methodologies try to achieve is convergence of methods but forcing it through statutes. Better ways would be through training (give people the know how and a common core of methods), tools (in the sense of automated aids) and peer reviews (inspections, walk-through, fairs). After there is a convergence and a de facto standard you can declare and publish it as a standard (i.e. “a proven method for undertaking a repeated task”).
Impose new approaches as standards before anyone in the organization has even tried them out is absurd.

But you have also to be careful to the Hawthorne effect: the change itself is not as important as the act of changing, people perform better when they are trying something new.

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