The balance of people and product

TLDR; favour people.

So a combination of finishing my new favourite book “The Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek, a change in career and some pretty heavy family events has led me to reflect a lot on this question. 

To clarify, when leaders favour people over products, they make a conscious decision to sacrifice the speed of product development in favour of supporting the team that are working on it. When leaders make decisions that favour products over people, they make decisions they have deemed to be for the good of the product, project or bottom line sometimes to the detriment of the team. Sinek also refers to this as “will over resources”. In the infinite game of business, he provides evidence (both anecdotal and empirical) that companies who make more of the decisions that invest in trust and psychological safety over profit stand the test of time. The DORA 2019 State of DevOps report (a benchmark guide for high performing software teams) suggests that elite performers in our industry have a culture of psychological safety as a building block for high software delivery performance. To build exceptional products, it requires an exceptional investment in people.

As he explains it so beautifully in this video, Sinek suggests that even if we can tip the balance of our priorities 51/49 in favour of people (will over resources), the rewards are obvious.

Many leaders have a bias towards people higher than this, not that I have any way to quantify it. This brings its own problems (lack of exposure to at C-level, perceived slower project delivery etc.) which I have personally encountered. This is not a strategy I recommend if you want to climb the corporate ladder quickly, but it is one that I recommend if you want to make a positive difference to people’s lives (and, as it happens, also delivers great products and brings in revenue to the business).

“If employees don’t feel cared for, they are statistically and significantly more likely to leave”

A study by Gallup that pops up time and again (first referenced in “First, Break All the Rules” – 1999, Buckingham & Coffman) asks over one million employees around the world to agree or disagree with the following statement : “My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person”. This Gallup defines as the The Fifth Element of Great Managing. The study finds that those teams that answered this question in the bottom quartile (that is, the teams that answered ‘no’ most often) had a 37% higher turnover rate than those in the top. If employees don’t feel cared for, they are statistically and significantly more likely to leave. For more reading, this post does a better job of explaining it than me.

In Summary

  • Psychological safety is the number one building block for creating elite performing teams in software delivery according to DORA
  • If employees don’t feel cared for, they are statistically and significantly more likely to leave

My personal argument for people over products like this: Investing in teams is like investing in a savings account. You use the capital in the account to ‘buy’ delivery of a high quality product. You cannot call on reserves when you have not invested, and you will pay for it later if you take out a loan to do so. 

Building rapport with humans and creating a culture of psychological safety requires heavy investment, and is hard work. However, Sinek reminds us that to favour ‘will’ over ‘resources’ and to build trusting teams is key to playing the infinite game of business, and ultimately delivers the best possible product for our customers.

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