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.

Common Pitfall: Planning Alone

Many organizations forget that planning is all about the planning. You’ve probably heard the saying: “The plan is nothing, the planning is everything”. For me, that means that the process of planning itself is, to a large degree, what creates belief in and understanding of the plans. The plans will break anyhow (we’ll still do our best to create them), but the more we participate in creating them, the more we believe in them, the more we take ownership for them, and the greater is the chance that we will reach our goals.

It’s both easy and hard to do this. The easy part is what typically needs to happen. The hard part is gaining acceptance for it, and facilitating the process effectively.

Gather all the people in a room. Let someone who understands the business side of things start out by explaining what needs to be achieved. Invite everyone else to ask questions. Make it safe to do so. Use your tricks of the trade to make the interactivity happen. Silent brainstorming is one powerful technique; ask participants to silently write down their questions and comments on cards, then work through these together. If you’ve ever presented something to a large group and then asked “any questions”, only to be met by compact silence, you know why a technique like this can be very useful.

With the high-level goal presented and discussed, and with questions clearly captured on flip charts on the wall where everyone can see that their concerns have been captured, go ahead and work together on the plan.

By now, there are many techniques in the agile community to make this easier. Collaborative story writing, planning poker, silent sorting, and story mapping are all popular. I’ve just started to learn about system anatomies, which seem to be a powerful way of working together on other views of the work to be done. Whichever techniques you choose, make sure to use them in a collaborative way. Therein lies the key to success.