Why Task Assignment Sucks

You may be like me. Some things at work suck the life out of me. I can’t always explain why. Most of the time I can learn to live with it, and therein lies the crux. I accommodate things that I really should refuse outright. Here’s one such thing: task assignment. See if you agree.

Assigning tasks. Also known as the age old habit of telling others what to do. Try to go a day without doing it. It’s pretty hard, especially if you have kids. Probably also hard if your title includes the word manager.

SO what’s so bad about assigning someone a task? After all, it can’t be that bad – there’s even support built in for doing it our planning software. Assign to person X, that’s what the buttons say.

Here’s why this bothers me. I’d much rather pick my own tasks. After all, I was hired to do what I do. Or at least I haven’t been fired yet. However it is: I’ve come to trust myself (at least some of the time) to choose which tasks will best take me towards the goals we’ve agreed upon. If we haven’t agreed on goals yet, I definitely can’t see why you would tell what to do. We should talk about goals before we do anything else.

Being assigned or picking. It might seem like a meaningless play with words, but I believe that the words we choose reveal something about our world view.

In one world view, people are resources to which we assign tasks. Worker threads that waste cycles when idling.

In another world view, people are people. Fully capable of filling their own work day with the right stuff, given a little bit of wise guidance.

You might think: ”sure, letting people pick their tasks would work with an experienced and motivated team – but you haven’t met my team. If I don’t tell them what to do, nothing at all gets done”.

To this I could reply: ”OK, your team sounds like it’s struggling. Have you tried giving them a juicy goal, and then letting them figure out how to reach it?”.

You in turn might just reply that you have indeed tried that, and that it didn’t work at all. Nothing did get done, as you knew it wouldn’t. Or maybe the wrong things were done.

Then I’ll ask you what you did next. If you now say that you stepped in and assigned tasks to people, then you might be able to see where the problem is.

Assigning tasks robs people of the ability to learn how to figure out the way to the goal themselves. It’s a learning stopper, and if there’s something we need more of in today’s organizations it’s learning.

In the end I don’t care if your buttons in JIRA still say ”Assign”. JIRA is a tool. You’re not. You know better.

Bringing In an Agile Coach

Agile coaches are everywhere these days. The nice thing about that is that agile has become so popular. The sad thing is that there is now a greater risk that you end up a with an agile coach that doesn’t really make things better for your company. Here’s what you need to think about before you bring in an agile coach.

There are so many different ways of defining what an agile coach does that to hire one, you need to be really clear about what kind of help you’re looking for.

One very fundamental distinction to consider is if you’re looking for an extra pair of hands or if you’re looking for someone to truly challenge you to grow and develop.

In my consulting work I do mainly the latter. My clients hire me not to run their project for them, but to support them in clarifying and understanding their organizations, their way of working, the motivations of themselves and their colleagues and so on.

Of course, I also bring a certain level of expertise that I can share where it fits. That said, I’m always amazed (but not surprised anymore) at how all the knowledge needed to perform better is already available inside my client companies. Often it’s not a bunch of new ideas that’s needed but better ways of really discovering and using what is already there.

If you’re considering an agile coach, I would advise you to consider making it a consulting type of role more than a pair-of-hands role. Let me explain why.

Everyone in your organization is busy working inside their sometimes very specific areas of responsibility. However, how well an organization performs isn’t decided by how well everyone is doing their jobs in isolation. Total performance comes from how well the individual performers play together.

Here’s the thing. An organization can fail from everyone doing their job as well as they can. What you need for success is that eternal management consultant buzzword: synergy. Synergy simply means that individual performances blend together into beautiful music. That music is what you should ask your agile coach to help you find.

So what? So far, nothing new here. Well, if you believe me when I say that coaching for performance needs to be about finding the synergy that creates beautiful music, then you should also consider the consequences of this.

What are the consequences of focusing on synergy? The consequences for the agile coach is that the coach needs to to work with your entire organization as a system, not just with parts of it in isolation. In practice, the coach you choose for this needs both the skill and the freedom to:

  • Explore all parts of the organization that need to be explored if performance increases are to be found
  • Ask all the questions that need to be asked
  • Work with all the people in the organization that need to be worked with

The coach’s part in this it to have the skill, confidence, curiosity, and experience needed to undertake such a systemic exploration. Your part as client is to make sure the coach really can do this, and then help your coach gain access to as much of the system as is needed to get to the performance you are looking for. This does not mean you should give the coach a carte blanche—it means that you should clearly define what you are aiming for, and then make sure to contract in a way that actually supports reaching this goal as effectively as possible, and in a way that makes the results stick.

In other words your agile coach will need to do much more than hands-on work with one or several teams. Your coach will need to actually coach, and coach in all directions. Working only inwards with your teams will not be enough simply because many forces that determine team performance are best dealt with outside of the teams.

To state it more bluntly: if the team is performing badly because you as a manager did a bad job creating the supporting circumstances for effective team work – then you need help too, if things are to improve.

Summing up: performance in organizations is about making sure all the parts work well together. Therefore the agile coach needs to work with all the parts of the organization.

Here’s the tricky part. Coaching while inside the hierarchical organizational pyramid is really difficult. As soon as you are part of the power pyramid, you become influenced by it. After all that’s the point of the hierarchy: to influence people to do their assigned job and report back upwards. It’s not impossible to coach from the inside, just a lot more difficult.

It is always hard to see an intricate system such as an organization clearly. It is harder by a magnitude when you are inside of it, being pressured by both seen and unseen forces to look at it in a specific way. This is why it may be wise to bring in help from the outside from time to time. Someone who sees things with fresh (and preferably kind) eyes.

If you tell your agile coach to “just make this team improve” while kindly asking for you to be left alone, I wouldn’t bet my money on your success. If, on the other hand, you sit down and have an explicit conversation with your coach about how to safely approach and engage with all those who need to be part of your journey to higher performance, then I’d say you’re off to a promising start.

By explicitly starting out by discussing what agile coaching means to you, you stand a better chance of discovering whether the candidate you’re talking to is up to the challenge of engaging with the whole organizational system. Or vice versa, if you’re looking for a pair of hands for a limited time and the candidate believes you want coaching.

If you do want coaching and it turns out that your candidate’s definition of agile coaching is “just enforce my favorite method and drop the rest in your lap”—then you’ll be very happy you caught that earlier rather than later. If you don’t, you might just discover that you’ve just used “agile coaching” to lower the performance of your organization rather than elevate it.

  • For more on the different ways we can hire help, read Johanna Rothman’s article about contracting versus consulting.
  • For more about clear and effective contracting, but also about working in an internal coaching role, see Peter Block’s “Flawless Consulting”.
  • For about ways to work with a systemic approach to agile performance, check out Bas Voddes and Craig Larmans two great books about scaling agile.

Copy-Paste Management

Developers sometimes engage in copy-paste development. If you’ve never written code, this is when a developer copies, pastes and possibly slightly modifies some existing code – instead of following the cleaner practice of reusing the code by (for example) turning it into a single function that can be called from multiple places.

Copying and pasting is very seductive. Developers know that it’s not a good long term solution, but in the short term it’s just so quick. It worked there, so it should work here.

Not just developers engage in copying and pasting. Managers and change artists do it too, and in a way, the behavior is a part of Scrum, as it is with any other packaged approach. What does copy-and-paste management look like? It looks like people trying to imitate what worked at another company, at another time, with different people – in the hope that it will work here too.

You can suspect that you have a case of copy-paste management on your hands the moment you hear someone in your organization say: “We should use Scrum”. You will know you have a case of copy-paste-management if you discover that no one seems able to give a reasonable explanation as to why you should use Scrum.

This text is short part of chapter 1 – “No Purpose Beyond Scrum” – in my upcoming book “Pitfalls of Scrum”. If you want to receive an email when it’s done, use this small form.

Shallow Success, or The Story of The Kidnapped Trophy

Did you know that there was once a project manager that successfully delivered a project on time, on budget, and according to specification? Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard the story – it turned out quite embarrasing in the end, so it might have been covered up a little bit. Here’s what happened.

After hearing about the project manager’s uncommon feat, the project management community was so astounded that it was decided that an official recognition was in order. The yearly gathering of project managers seemed like a suitable venue, and so plans were made and a suitable trophy was commissioned.

On the night of the ceremony the successful project manager walked on stage in front of the gathered community in order to receive an award from the hands of the king and queen of project management. Unfortunately, just when the project manager was about to grab the delicately ornamented and lavishly gilded “Iron Triangle Trophy”, a small girl jumped up on stage.

– “Stop!”, the girl shouted to the king and queen, with the side effect of also silencing the entire audience very effectively. With a grim look on her little face the intruder turned towards the audience.

– “Yes”, the girl said. “It is true that this project manager delivered a project on time, on budget, and according to the contracted specifications. However, my daddy uses the system when he works and he says it’s terrible. I know, because he comes home angry every night and says bad things about it. In fact, he said that it was a total pile of …”.

Her last words couldn’t be heard, because the king and queen had unplugged the little girl’s microphone. They congratulated each other by nodding their heads ever so slightly and staring deeply into each other’s eyes. That’s why they weren’t prepared to stop the little girl as she ran up to the king and snatched the trophy from his hand and proceeded to run off behind the curtains, never to be seen again.

They say the project manager never understood what happened, and went on to manage many similar successes during a long and fruitful career.

This might end up as the introduction to the chapter called “Shallow Success” in my upcoming book “Pitfalls of Scrum”. If you might be interested in it, sign up here: https://leanpub.com/pitfalls-of-scrum

Prioritizing Effectively as a Team

Prioritizing Effectively as a Team on Agileconnection.com

My new article “Prioritizing Effectively as a Team” is up on AgileConnection.com. The article starts out like this:

“A common reaction to the product owner role is to see it as too big for a single person. If the idea were that one person should do everything from guiding the vision to writing user stories, I would agree. But that’s not how I see the role; I see it as one component in getting to effective teamwork.”

You can read the full article on Agileconnection.com (no registration needed).

The Birth, Death, and Rebirth of Ideas

Watching the waxing and waning of software development methodologies made me think about the lifecycle of ideas. Throughout the ages, humans have come up with ideas. Some ideas never become more than a thought. Others spread globally, affecting people for a long time. The life of ideas seems to be an eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

The Spark

Who can tell where ideas come from? Suddenly they appear. Sometimes we can trace their origin, backtracking through threads of thoughts and experiences. Sometimes, they seem to materialize out of thin air. At times, we can clearly see how an idea grew on top of another. At other times, the idea seems to be radically, even inexplicably, groundbreaking. We can be sure of two things: as long as humans exist, ideas will keep coming, and as long as humans exist, we will often look with suspicion at new ideas – or be strangely attracted to them.

Disciples Arrive

While others are still suspicious, some are intuitively and emotionally attracted to a certain new idea. They may not be able to say why, but something draws them in. Maybe the idea seems to be a solution to the challenges they currently have. Maybe the idea just sounds right. Whatever it is, it is drawing some people in more strongly than others. Some of these first comers become disciples – students of the originator of the idea.


In the beginning, there is no written curriculum, no rulebook to follow. The originator and the disciples gather and talk. The idea is still fresh and pliable. As the conversations go on, the idea evolves. Provoked by new insights from both originator and disciples, it mutates from its original form into something new. Because this happens in conversation in the group, the idea is the shared property of those who participate, and there seems to be unity around what the idea is – even though it cannot always be described exactly.

Spreading the Word

The lack of clear rules doesn’t deter the disciples. Eager to let more people see the brilliance of the new idea, they get to work on spreading it. More conversations ensue – in slowly widening circles. Some of the new people who learn about the idea decide to take part in spreading it further.


The new idea has taken root. It now seems to be spreading almost by itself. The originator and the disciples are no longer in control of the spreading. They are happy that the idea is catching on, but a few of them also worry. Some new people seem to misunderstand the idea. Even worse: there are now people who claim that they understand the idea, yet misrepresent it entirely when teaching it. Some of the disciples say that things are spiraling out of control.

A System is Born

Realizing that they are loosing grip of the idea, the originator and the disciples gather to discuss a solution. They that the idea needs to be more clearly described, so that new students can be steered in the right direction. Gradually, some things are clarified. But some things also seem to be lost in the process. Some of the disciples consider this a price worth paying – after all, they all want the idea to spread. Others quietly wonder if the frenzy to specify what the idea is about is making the idea itself disappear.

Rules and Robes

A system of clarifying rules is now in place, but maintaining it is no easy task. To make sure the rules are followed, new roles, ceremonies and symbols are introduced. Those assigned a role in the system play a part that is very different from the disciples. Instead of focusing on the original idea, the perspective of these role-players is that of learning and spreading the rules of the system.

As time passes, the players become further and further removed from the idea itself, and more and more attached to the growing set of rules. As the rule set grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to learn for those who cannot spend all their time studying it. This gives the maintainers of the rule set a clear advantage: they can now claim supreme insight – and their deep knowledge of the rules seems to prove it. They are given a title to carry, maybe with some symbolic item (possibly clothing), that make it clear that they and no one else are the keepers of the truth.

These interpreters of the message now make up a formidable layer between the original idea and newcomers. Ask us, they say, because we have the answers. Thinking for yourself will only lead you astray – it is too hard for you. Even dangerous.

Rewards and Punishment

Now far removed from its original form, the original idea is no longer a spark of inspiration. It has mutated into a stagnant rulebook, maintained by those who have made it their task to uphold the rules, whatever the costs may be. As both the number of rules and number of followers keep increasing, the likelihood of rule violations is also bound to grow. To maintain respect for the system, the maintainers devise systems of rewards and punishment and assign themselves the right to dole them out. Many of the new followers appreciate this – after all, they didn’t come for the idea, they came because they were attracted by the structure and order of the rule system.

Splits and Branches

As the burden of what is now a strict system of compliance increases, some followers can no longer accept the situation. They decide to form their own branch of the system, giving them room to adapt the rules to their liking – and to put more deserving people into positions of power. Soon, multiple schools exists, and relations are not friendly between them. There seem to be no limit to the amount of energy and time that can be spent on debating which rules are the best. Some find this entirely satisfactory; debating their adversaries has become their new mission. After all (they say) the One Truth must be defended, or it may become tainted.

Heresy: a New Spark

With multiple schools of thought and multiple rulebooks in play, the system has become all-encompassing. Its controls seem to reach all, but that is only an illusion. As its grip has widened, it has also loosened. Below the surface of polite compliance, free thoughts of resistance are bubbling, provoked into existence by the very system that sought to keep them out. One day, a new idea stands out so powerfully that some people find it irresistible, even given the risk of dire consequences for those who choose to speak about it. A small and still secret group of heretics gathers to talk about the idea. The life of the idea is over, and immediately starts all over again.

Managing as Helping

Are you a manager, or maybe an informal leader with implicit influence and responsibility? Have you considered how you think about your role? Have you considered thinking about yourself as a helper?

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re working in a knowledge-based organization: an enterprise that builds its success on being able to convert human motivation into creative ideas, and then use the best of those ideas to develop useful products and services.

Knowledge-based organizations are hard to manage, because people are hard to manage. Highly educated and creative people might be especially hard to manage, because they have high expectations when it comes to being managed in the right way.

How you see the role of management is going to be a major factor in deciding whether you end up managing in a way that’s helpful to people in your organization or not.

If there’s one thing the modern organization does not have room for, it’s unhelpful people. We may have room for freeloaders (you’ve been one too, at times in your life), assholes (you’ve been there too, especially if you think you’ve never been seen as one), and incompetents (in some things you should be incompetent, otherwise you’re just cruising).

However, I don’t think we have room for unhelpful people. Success as an organizations comes from creating a web of interactions – also known as helping each other. Here are some telltale signs that might indicate that you are currently not as helpful as you could be:

  • When somebody asks for help, you don’t help them. Well. That one’s pretty obvious I guess. Just remember that’s its easy to fool yourself. You may be presenting yourself with solid reasons why not helping is the right thing to do. Look closely at those reasons, and remember that there is more than one way to help. To begin with, helping does not necessarily mean taking on a task someone else should rightfully do – nor does it mean giving direct answers. Which takes us to point number two:
  • You give help by taking over the task completely, thereby robbing your colleague from the opportunity to learn to do the task. In knowledge organizations, eliminating learning is a cardinal sin. Therefore, this kind of helping isn’t very helpful.
  • You consider some tasks to be beneath you. Maybe you think that you no longer have to visit the development teams. After all, you paid your dues long ago, and now you have team leads or scrum masters or agile coaches or whatever working with the teams. They’re doing the floor work and report to you every now and then. But how can you possibly claim to manage work that you are so separated from? Don’t be afraid to go out there. Look at what’s really happening and learn, learn, learn. Then provide help.
  • You listen to people’s requests for help, then say: “I’m sure you can figure out a way to solve it”. Of course they can – but they came to you asking for help. Asking for help is not an easy thing to do. It puts you in a vulnerable position (which is why those who most need help may be least likely to ask for it). When somebody comes to you and asks for your help, you should see that as a sign of trust being extended. This is the moment when you can truly make a difference. Don’t throw that away.
  • You inflict help where help is not asked for. That’s not helpful, and will lead to resentment. You can’t help someone who does not want to be helped. I remember discussing this perspective on helping with a group that included a social worker. She was offended by the suggestion that help must be wanted. In her line of work, she said, help often had to forced upon people who aren’t asking for it, like addicts for example. In the end, someone asked her if she had ever had long-term success in helping an addict that didn’t want to go clean. She looked sad, sighed, and said no.
  • You don’t ask for help. As a manager or informal leader, your behavior sets the tone. You are a role model. If you are not able to ask for help when you really need it, why do you think others should have that ability? But wait, you might be thinking, what if I simply don’t need help? If you think that, then you’re beyond what I can help you with through a text like this. All I can say is this: what on Earth makes you think you don’t need help?

If you want to learn more about managing as helping, my recommendation is that you buy and study Ed Schein’s book “Helping”. It’s written in very plain and understandable language. Don’t be fooled into thinking that makes the topic easy. Helping is really hard work – but it’s also very rewarding.

The Worst Daily Scrum Ever

I once observed what was probably the worst daily scrum ever. Just when I thought it was over, something interesting happened.

Visiting a team in an organization I worked with, I got to see one particular scrum master run a daily scrum – into the ground. This is the story of how he did that – but it’s also the story of how the team miraculously survived this train crash of a meeting.

Every morning, the team would gather around a large whiteboard, where the scope for the sprint and the relevant tasks were posted in the form of a bunch of sticky notes. The meeting would not begin until the scrum master, literally, pointed at a person, and asked:

– “What have you been doing since yesterday?” Upon hearing this, the indicated person would give a very brief account about what tasks had been worked on.

Then, the scrum master proceeded by asking:

– “What will you be doing today?” Again, a short answer, which seemed mostly directed at satisfying the need to say something in response to this direct question.

The third question asked by the scrum master was:

– “Do you have any impediments?” I noticed that the answer to this was always no, for all members of the team. I knew this answer couldn’t be true, because this was a team that struggled mightily every single day.

When I thought it couldn’t possibly become any worse, the scrum master fired off one last and revealing question:

– “Do you have any hours to reduce”

At first, I was surprised by this very direct way of trying to make the burndown point downwards, but it dawned on me that it was perfectly congruent with the scrum master’s unspoken goal: to preserve the illusion of control. The answer to this fourth question would go along these lines:

– “Hours to reduce? No, not really. But, I guess I have been working on this task a bit, so let’s see. Yesterday, the estimate of remaining time was 16 hours. I guess it’s about 14 hours left now. No, 13 and a half.” Hearing this, the scrum master nodded and smiled, and noted the change in his notebook.

Directed by the scrum master, the team continued in this fashion in a round-robin style. Whenever “some hours were reduced”, the scrum master would nod approvingly and take some notes.

I could hear no requests, and no offerings of help. No really valuable information seemed to be surfaced. Energy seemed to be at a rock bottom low.

Then something interesting happened.

The scrum master declared that the meeting was over, and turned his back to the team to work on his notes from the meeting. Because his back was now turned to the team, he never really witnessed what happened next.

With the official part of the meeting over, the team suddenly seemed to come alive. They suddenly huddled together and started a lively exchange about their plans for the day. One person would suggest a course of action, and someone else would fill in with some additional information. Someone asked a question, and others jumped in to answer it.

With the directive scrum master out of the game, the team took the reins and did what needed to be done to lay the groundwork for working together during the day. They performed an effective daily scrum. Energy was high, information flowed, and when needs had been met the meeting was over.

This real scrum went on for just a few minutes, with me watching in amazement. The scrum master never saw what happened. I know, because I asked him afterwards:

– “Did you see what happened after you ended the meeting”?
– “No.”
– “The team came together and sorted out the day.”
– “OK.”
– “Do you think you need to change the way you run the meeting?”
– “No. It works for me.”

How’s your daily scrum? Is it working for you? How about for the rest of the team?

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What Is an Advanced Scrum Master?

Being a scrum master is more than just reminding a team to perform certain ceremonies, it’s about growing the best possible workplace.

To begin with, let’s clarify this whole thing about the “scrum master”. It’s the name of a role. It’s a relatively new and pretty ridiculous name by intent, because a change was needed in how we lead development work.

Every now and then we shake things up by inventing new names. Just remember that behind the term “scrum master” is the timeless idea of the servant leader. Someone who is there not to exert power over others, but to give power to others. To empower them.

I don’t know how long the term scrum master will hang around. I do know that I want what it represents to stick for the long run. For now, I’ll allow myself the use of the possibly even sillier expression “advanced scrum master”, but bear with me, at least for the length of this post.

After having served as the scrum master for a team some years ago, a newly hired person was assigned to pick up the task after I moved on. We talked often during the transition period, but I really only remember one of those conversations.

We were sitting comfortably and discussing the way we were working, when my new colleague asked me something that surprised me. He said:

“Tobias – I don’t understand how this scrum master thing can possibly be a full time job. I can see how I need to invite people to the meetings, and work a bit with the product owner – but that will hardly take upp all my time. What am I supposed to be doing?”

I was a bit stunned, because that thought had never struck me. From my perspective, the list of things you can choose to work on as a scrum master is endless. After all – how many teams have you met that were as productive, creative, and happy as they could possibly be? There’s always one more thing to address (including pacing the rate of change).

What I’m saying is this: the scrum master role is as challenging and rewarding as you make it. You can definitely improve your ability to create positive results by gaining deeper skill and insight. Here are some things that I can think of that I would expect from a more advanced scrum master. I’m sure you could add many more to my list:

  • Mindfully asking powerful questions to assist learning
  • Helping the team find the time for learning
  • Supporting the team in increasing its skill
  • Working with the team to grow clear and simple processes and agreements that truly help
  • Looking far outside the scrum and agile canon to find new things to learn and try in fields such as agile engineering practices, psychology, organizations, testing, change, teams, learning, culture, consulting, systems, problem solving, and design (to name just a few)
  • Spending a whole lot of time working with the people in the organization surrounding the team, since that’s often the most powerful force shaping the team’s behavior and results
  • Gradually helping more parts of the organization to understand and make use of the scrum mindset of cross-functional and transparent work
  • Helping managers understand how to serve better
  • Constantly working on developing him- or herself, realizing that the most powerful tool you have at your disposal is yourself

Last but not least, I would expect to see the advanced scrum master working on helping others learn how to do all of the above, so that the power to lead can spread. After all, we can’t let the organization’s future depend solely on somebody called a “scrum master”, can we now?

How would you know that you had just seen an “advanced scrum master” in action? What would that person be doing, and how would it make things different?

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Broken Software

I sometimes hear the agile manifesto being criticized for focusing on “just working software”. It’s said that working software is not enough, that we need to reach further. I agree that we need change, but not in the wording.

If your definition of working software is “if it compiles, ship it”, then the manifesto’s words won’t seem like they change much. For you, the manifesto sounds like business as usual.

Twelve years after first reading it, the agile manifesto still doesn’t sound like business as usual to my ears.

Here’s the thing. I really like software. Really. I always have, ever since I used my first computers as a small kid. I guess computers and software filled a spot for me.

I don’t like all software. I like software that does its job and is a pleasure to use. I’m on a continuous quest to find more software like that, but many of the apps I try suck.

It’s not working software if it doesn’t work for me. Then it’s broken software.

As a user, I’m not content with software that works in the sense that “all functions are there, but that’s about it”. If it does the job, but is a pain to use, I don’t think of it as working software. I may even come to hate it, because now I know that the software could have worked, but its creators didn’t care enough to make it lovely to use.

When developers lack a passion for the user, the result can never be working software. Instead, we get broken software. Broken software is not working software.

For me, the problem is not the expression “working software”. That makes perfect sense. The problem is that some software makers still have a broken definition of what working means.