"The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don't play together, the club won't be worth a dime."

Babe Ruth

Assigning tasks to individuals might feel like the most natural thing in the world, but in reality, when you are trying to create a highly functioning team, it might be doing more harm than good. This is true even when tasks are self-assigned by team members, and certainly true when tasks are imposed upon individuals by managers. Here’s why.

Having one individual responsible for a task takes responsibility away from the team and instead focuses on the individual. This can be damaging in a number of ways, not least that the individual is under more pressure to deliver. Short termist management might think this encourages productivity, but the internal pressure this generates can be a short cut to burnout. The focus needs to be on collective responsibility: it’s the responsibility of the team to release something, not the responsibility of the individual.

This issue is compounded if the team’s work in progress limit is too high. If there are nine team members, and nine things currently in progress, then in the best case each person will have nine things to do, and in the worst case one person will have all nine things to do and the other eight people will be sitting around waiting for them to finish, putting enormous pressure on those who are the bottleneck. The more items of work that are currently in progress, the more than a focus on assignment will bite you.

Assignment promotes a command and control attitude. Sometimes, each member of a “team” is actually being managed individually and has their own stream of work. This can produce output in certain cases, but the individuals being managed are not a team: they’re a collection of individuals who might happen to sit together.

Individual assignment can create silos of information. If one person is responsible for a task, and everyone has their own tasks or types of work, then it’s harder to work as a team: the knowledge is held only with a few people, rather than across everyone. Pairing dramatically helps break these silos down.

Assignment can also give rise to the hero anti-pattern: where a few people are responsibility for the success of the entire team, and they end up pulling an all-nighter just to get the release out the door. The hero culture might seem appealing to short-sighted managers, but when eventually the hero inevitably fails to deliver, hero culture quickly turns to blame culture.

How to shift this culture?

  • Reduce your team’s work in progress limit. Insist they don’t start anything else until the team finishes what’s in progress, and that they go to pair with those who are still working on tasks, even if it’s not their normal discipline.

  • Stop giving people things to do. At the very least, ensure that the team are choosing their own tasks from a list rather than being managed individually.

  • Stop tracking assignment. Don’t record on the task who is working on it. Simply track what’s being worked on by talking about it each standup meeting.

  • Avoid the trap of buck-passing. If you’re not careful, giving a weaker team collective responsibility means that they pass the buck. The thinking goes: “if I’m not individually responsible then I’m not responsible at all.” The antidote is team accountability: praise the entire team for their successes and ensure they all investigate the reasons for failure together. This includes the product owner and the user experience people - they are all part of the team.

Does task assignment cause problems for you? What silos could be broken down by having more of a team assignment focus?