Management Antipattern: Task Assignment by Accident, or Worse
Short version: Assign tasks in a transparent manner
Generalized: Visibility to task definition, priority, and assignment allows for better organization of work
Ultra-specific request of managers: Watch out for duplication of effort, for the appearance of favoritism, for consistently discarded effort, for consistently changing priorities, and for consistently missed milestones despite people putting the work in. These are likely a result of task assignment problems.
This is a software engineering article.
For the moment, imagine you’re working in a bookstore:
- You start to take an inventory of the reference section, and, while you step away for a short break, someone else starts the effort there from scratch.
- You are the go-to person on poetry books, but the store manager keeps directing questions on that subject to someone who doesn’t know about poetry.
- You’re asked to write up a summary of why people should shop at your bookstore, spend half a day on it, submit it, and never hear back on the subject again. This sort of discarded work happens weekly for you.
- While you are taking someone’s cash for a sale, the manager asks you to urgently restack books in the display for a best-selling author.
- Someone who works at the cafe says the poetry section is not organized by the pictures on the covers of the books, and the manager immediately puts that person in charge of organizing the poetry section, despite pictures on the covers of books not being a good organization method.
- The manager tells you suddenly that you need to count the letter i in all the books you inventory as the highest priority as he’d like to have a sign with a count of the letter i’s in the front of the store. This is despite the chaos of books unshelved in the self-help section. Priorities do not seem to make business sense.
- You hear others are encountering the same behaviors.
You wouldn’t be surprised when milestones are missed. So why is the manager?
As a software engineer and former bookstore clerk, this analogy makes a lot of sense to me.
Does it to you?
Some advice to managers who need to assign tasks:
- There is a temptation to assign tasks to the person who you speak to next or who is friendliest to you. Resist that temptation. Assign tasks by some qualifications below.
- Make the team aware of who is doing what. This is best done via a kanban board or other software tool which displays open tasks by assignment with their status on a day by day basis.
- Let the team know if tasks are cancelled — and why? Don’t just forget about a task and never follow up. If you need to cancel it, cancel it. Also, provide a reason why the task is being canceled.
- Tasks should be assigned to the right people. Let’s face it: you like person A better than person B. But person B is better suited for the task. Here are some reasons you might assign it to person B rather than person A:
Who can do it best?
Who needs to learn this the most?
Whose responsibility is this?
- Tasks should be assigned to build a team, not just accomplish the task.
Think of making an effective team as part of the task and bake that into the estimate.
- Encourage teamwork. You want tasks one person is doing to benefit from the best ideas, and the support, of the team.
Going it alone and being resented for foisting unvetted work is not an ingredient for a good team.
- Task delegation should be recursive. Anyone taking apart his or her own work and delegating it to others after you assign it that person should also use the precepts above.
Who am I?
As someone with over two decades of leadership experience in the tech world, I still make mistakes. I have a treasure trove of anti-patterns I’ve either seen or exercised myself.
In short, I know the good stories. Don’t assume my stories are from my current place of employment. Odds are they are not.
I’m a senior data engineer experienced in Python and various SQL flavors, a process improver, a leader/manager, and someone who wants employee experiences to improve.
I hope you enjoy reading the articles in the Leadership Anti-Pattern series as much I enjoy writing them.