Personnel management vs work management

It is increasingly important to separate management of work from management of people.

Organisations use matrix structures, or helix[1], or guilds, to provide personnel management (recruitment, development, pastoral care, performance management, HR administration…) distinct from the product and project work.  Work managers and personnel managers collaborate to manage teams, but the two function are clearly distinct, so that staff work with two different managers for these two different areas of their employment[2]. Nobody should have to do both: their goals sometimes conflict, people are better at one than the other, and they make the job too complex.


This is an important principle, keeping the two apart. In future, the world will increasingly separate work management from personnel management. This isn’t a new idea. It has been around forever in various forms. We have tried these ideas in the past. Rob worked in a matrixed organisation in 1985-7. What’s new is that workers aren’t owned resources. They’re free authorised adult knowledge workers who are invited to accept work according to their team’s capabilities.

You may have seen this division revisited lately, e.g. the “helix”, articulated in new terms. It makes very good sense and fits exactly with where we are going.

It is not specialisation; it is recognition that they’re different things. An incident manager is not a training manager just because they are both called manager.

At Teal Unicorn, we also call out a third role, team coach (or “scrum-master”).

A work manager manages lumps of work (a product, process, service, programme, or project) focused on value, deliverables and milestones.

A personnel manager manages groups of people (by skillset, division , location…) focused on wellbeing, development, and performance.

A team coach helps teams form and improve, focused on output, quality, and improvement.  They serve teams, not individuals.

This is not a matrix of hierarchies. The only one of these three roles that has anything like people “belonging” to them are the personnel managers who are responsible for them. All three roles – work, personnel, team – are servant managers: gardeners not commanders.

We can also recognise a fourth role: executive management. they sit above (or below, supporting) the other three, providing inspiration and vision.

“Skills not roles”: perhaps these capabilities can sometimes be combined in one person,  when a management team self-organises the work amongst themselves. Just as often, a manager will be happy to be able to focus on one and not have to do the others that are not a personal strength.


[2] Scrum@Scale has a similar concept, separating the “what” (the work) from the “how” (the ways of working), with different people accountable for guiding each for teams.


This is an extract from the second edition of our book The agile Manager (small a), in-preparation for publication in 2021.