Don't hoard your star performers, let them out in the field

Don't hoard your star performers, let them out in the field
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Even well-run organizations can fall into the trap of ‘hoarding’ their star performers, keeping them ‘on the bench’, unwilling to put them on use in challenging everyday projects. That’s an unnecessary inefficiency. Much like in sports, allowing your strongest players to go out to the field not only gives them practice, and improves general performance, it also provides boost of morale to the rest of the team.


Imagine a dusty attic overflowing with heirlooms, gathering cobwebs instead of enriching lives. This image perfectly captures the irony of hoarding mentality in software engineering, where top performers – the organization’s most valuable assets – are often underutilized, their potential locked away like precious antiques.

This essay delves into the detrimental effects of hoarding top performers in engineering, from what I have witnessed in some organizations. We’ll explore the negative consequences, advocate for a more empowering alternative, and equip ourselvesv with tools to champion a shift towards consistent utilization.

I witnessed this firsthand in a Kathmandu engineering firm, where a highly skilled engineer was kept on the sidelines for “big emergencies,” while their colleagues struggled with everyday challenges. This experience left me deeply troubled, not just by the underutilization of talent, but by the missed opportunities and hampered efficiency it caused.

This sparked a burning question: how can organizations break free from this limiting approach and unleash the true power of their human capital? In this essay, we’ll delve into the “use-it-or-lose-it” reality of hoarding psychology in software engineering, exploring its negative consequences and advocating for a more empowering alternative.

From Orchestras to Engineering Teams

Imagine a magnificent orchestra where the most skilled musicians are rarely given solos, their virtuosity reserved for special occasions. While others struggle with challenging pieces, these talents remain underutilized, hindering the orchestra’s overall performance. This mirrors software teams where top performers are kept on the sidelines, limiting their contributions and stifling team potential.

Think of a talented gardener with a passion for exotic plants. If they hoard rare seeds instead of planting them, their skills never develop, and the potential beauty of their garden remains unrealized. This parallels individuals in organizations who, under a hoarding mentality, see their skills stagnate due to underutilization, hindering both personal and organizational growth.

We’ve all encountered hoarding tendencies in everyday life. Imagine a family with a “junk room” overflowing with unused items. While they hold onto these possessions for “just in case” scenarios, they miss opportunities to declutter, donate, and potentially enjoy these items. This reflects how organizations might hoard data, tools, or even knowledge, limiting their accessibility and hindering innovation.

The Ripple Effect: From Underutilized Individuals to Societal Impact:

Consider a chain reaction: an underutilized top performer in an organization feels unmotivated and less productive. This impacts team morale and performance, potentially affecting product quality and customer satisfaction. In a broader context, imagine the cumulative effect of underutilized talent across countless organizations. This wasted potential hinders societal progress and innovation, impacting all of us.

These analogies illustrate the universality of the hoarding mentality and its far-reaching consequences. Just as the gardener cultivates their expertise by planting seeds, and the orchestra thrives when all musicians contribute, organizations must embrace consistent utilization of their top performers. This shift unlocks individual potential, builds stronger teams, and ultimately drives innovation and success, benefiting not just the organization but society as a whole.

This hoarding manifests in various ways. Top performers might be stuck with mundane tasks, excluded from crucial decision-making, or kept in the dark about valuable resources. A culture of fear and information silos thrives, where knowledge and expertise are tightly controlled, not freely shared. It’s like having a library locked away, its wisdom inaccessible to those who need it most.

The consequences of this restrictive approach are stark. Top performers feel underutilized, their skills plateauing, and their motivation waning. Teams suffer from knowledge gaps and missed collaboration opportunities, leading to inefficiencies and slower progress. The organization itself loses its competitive edge, struggling with stifled innovation and sluggish development cycles.

Now, imagine a different scenario. In a culture of consistent utilization, top performers are challenged, empowered, and seen as integral parts of the team. They actively share their knowledge, fostering collaboration and learning across all levels. This unlocks a treasure trove of benefits: individuals experience growth and recognition, teams function with increased synergy, and the organization thrives on a wave of innovation and agility.

Software engineering organizations must abandon the hoarding mentality and embrace the power of consistent utilization for their top performers. This shift is not just a moral imperative, but a strategic one, unlocking human capital’s full potential and propelling organizations towards success in a rapidly evolving landscape

Emphasizing the Benefits of Consistent Utilization

Conversely, consistent utilization of top performers unlocks a wealth of benefits. Companies like Facebook and OpenAI, renowned for empowering their top talent, showcase the advantages firsthand. Facebook’s culture of “hackathons” encourages senior engineers to actively share knowledge and contribute to diverse projects, fostering innovation and rapid prototyping. OpenAI leverages its top researchers not just for research, but also for code reviews and mentorship, accelerating development cycles and knowledge transfer. In both cases, consistent utilization led to faster development cycles, improved product quality, and a more agile and innovative workforce.

Remember the family with the rarely used fancy china and living room? This seemingly harmless habit embodies the core principle of hoarding – valuing possession over utilization. While they hold onto these resources for “special occasions,” their true potential – bringing joy and creating memories – remains locked away. This mirrors how organizations hoard top talent, keeping them underutilized for “emergencies,” neglecting their everyday contributions and stifling their potential.

Shifting towards consistent utilization of top performers requires overcoming not just tactical challenges, but also the inertia of established practices. Organizations often fall into comfortable routines, hesitant to disrupt the status quo even when the current approach proves suboptimal. Understanding these underlying forces is crucial to forging a path towards change.

Sources of Inertia:

Fear of the unknown: Stepping outside familiar territory can be daunting. Organizations might fear unintended consequences of disrupting established hierarchies or workflow patterns. Investment in the existing system: Resources have been poured into training, tools, and processes associated with the current system, creating a “sunk cost fallacy” that discourages change. Lack of urgency: If the negative effects of hoarding haven’t become critically apparent, there might be a “wait-and-see” attitude, delaying action. Individual resistance: Managers who benefit from the existing power dynamics might resist changes that disrupt their control or influence.

Aligning Interests

Despite the inertia, demonstrating the alignment of interests between individuals, teams, and the organization can be a powerful motivator for change:

  1. Individual growth and fulfillment: Consistent utilization offers top performers greater challenges, learning opportunities, and career advancement, improving their satisfaction and retention.
  2. Teamwork and collaboration: Sharing knowledge and expertise across levels builds stronger teams, growing a culture of learning and innovation.
  3. Organizational success: By maximizing the potential of their talent, organizations achieve faster development cycles, improved product quality, and a competitive edge.

Strategies for Overcoming Inertia:

  1. Start small: Pilot programs showcasing the benefits of consistent utilization in specific teams can build momentum and overcome resistance.
  2. Transparency and communication: Engaging stakeholders in open dialogue about the challenges of hoarding and the potential benefits of change fosters understanding and buy-in.
  3. Data-driven approach: Quantifying the negative impacts of hoarding and the potential gains from change, using metrics like employee satisfaction, innovation rates, or product development cycle times, can build a compelling case for action.
  4. Incentives and recognition: Recognizing and rewarding individuals who champion the shift towards consistent utilization can encourage broader adoption.

Throughout this essay, we’ve explored the detrimental effects of the “hoarding mentality” in software engineering, highlighting the missed opportunities, stifled innovation, and underutilized potential it creates. We’ve also delved into the transformative power of consistent utilization, showcasing its benefits for individuals, and the organization as a whole.

The choice is not between utilizing or hoarding top performers; it’s about unleashing their true potential or letting it remain locked away. The path forward requires acknowledging the challenges, embracing the power of aligned interests, and implementing strategic changes that empower individuals, strengthen teams.


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