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Management of the Lowest Common Denominator

There are two types of workers in enterprise environments: movers and builders. Sadly, often management of the lowest common denominator is deemed best suited to increase productivity for both. Guess what? It's not.

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There was a LinkedIn blog post I read awhile back that described the two types of employees: movers and builders.

(Unfortunately I didn’t bookmark the post and I can’t find it again, so I can’t give proper credit, but if you know the post I am talking about please leave a comment).

Movers take established processes, clear objectives, and easily quantifiable output, and do it every day. Movers come into work with a very good idea of what they are going to do that day, because what they do has been done a hundred times before.

Builders take vague requirements, unknown quantities with difficult to measure outcomes, and build new systems, processes, and products from them. Builders have few guidelines and limited precedent to guide their actions other than their own intuition and experience.

As reductionist theories go, this breakdown of employees into movers vs. builders has been one that I have personally seen played out in enterprise environments time and time again.

Almost every enterprise needs both kinds of employees. Builders are required to increment and innovate, while movers keep the gears spinning and making the business money.

The problem for IT enterprises is how to improve the efficiency of both types of employees. Unfortunately, all too often the solution to increasing productivity is through “management of the lowest common denominator.”

The worse-than-median performers in an enterprise aren’t (or shouldn’t be) builders. Creating new processes or implementing new ideas should be done by those who have demonstrated a level of expertise that sets them apart. But those in the lower half of the performance spectrum are well suited to mover style jobs.

The way you improve the performance of movers is to set clear goals, to capture quantifiable metrics, and provide training in the established way of doing things. This is management of the lowest common denominator.

However, none of these kind of management tools work for builders. There are no clear goals, quantifiable metrics or established processes, so you can’t define, measure or teach them. Builders need a completely different set of tools to help them perform at their best. They need budgets so they can source their own training, freedom to try a few different (and wrong) ways of doing things before finding the right one, and even going so far as to standardise practices like 20% time where builders can experiment with their own ideas.

When you start to look at the numbers, management of the lowest common denominator begins to look like a bad investment. Take this chart from Peopleware, which describes the performance of any group of people against any kind of metric.

There is a neat quote that describes one very important aspect of this chart:

Count on the half that are better-than-median performers outdoing the other half by more than 2:1.

What this mean is that improving the performance of you better-than-median employees results in significantly more productivity gain compared to improving the performance of your worse-than-median employees by the same percentage.

When you are looking for the best ROI when investing in your employees, keep in mind that your better-than-median employees will provide the best bang for your buck, but they often won’t respond to the kind of “speed up the assembly line” mentality that is so often the go to solution for improving the bottom line.

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Topics:
team management

Published at DZone with permission of Matthew Casperson, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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