Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Task assigning does not teach self-organization

I was frustrated, as I was ticking away mental check boxes on the testing that needed to be done. It was one of the last tasks of a major effort so many of us had contributed on for the last 6 months. The testing I was doing wasn’t mine to do but I had agreed with our intern that this would be work they’d do. Yet I found myself doing it, after 3 days of pinging, reminding and explaining what needed doing.  The work I was doing wasn’t just something I expected from them, but as I was doing it, I learned they had also skipped my previous instructions of utmost importance.

As I completed the task, I shared the status to our coordination channel. Next up was a discussion I wasn’t sure on how to have on missing the mark of my expectations big time.

My feelings are a thing I can hardly not let show, and I approached the discussion letting my frustration be visible, and using my words to explain that I wanted to understand, and that failing wasn’t something I’d punish on, but something we just had to talk about.

We learned three things together.

For not doing an important thing I had reminded them on multiple times, there was a clear lack of understanding why I considered it so relevant. Discussing the big picture of risks, I’m sure that particukar thing gets done the next time. The intern expressing frustration on boring and repetitive task lead us also into identifying the root cause, and they volunteered to drive through an organizations fix - while not dismissing my instructions on remedies while the fix was not in place. I was delighted on the show of initiative.

For not doing the testing I ended up doing, I learned they were overwhelmed with number of requests all around, and the problem was a result of misprioritization. They were spending their time on a pesky test automation script, while the real priority would have been to complete the testing I just did.

We also reviewed the testing I had done, to realize they would not have known what to do. The task was one with many layers, dependencies to what happened while testing, requiring end to end understanding of business process and a perspective into lifecycle. All this was obvious to me, but they had worked on simpler tasks before. We had now identified a type of task that stretched too far.

We ended with celebrating how awesome this story of our mutual learning is and agreed to work on intake of complex work differently next time around.

As I mentioned the experience to a colleague, I was told their preferred way of dealing with this is Jira tasks with clear instructions. That’s what they were doing to me and learning I never obeyed. Others did. The discussion made a belief system thing visible: I was building each of my colleagues for their best future self as contributor. My colleague was focusing on how to get the work done with existing limitations.

Their style gave results where everyone did a little less than what they asked. My style gave results where we occasionally failed and reflected, but I could always assume a bit more next time around.

Assigning tasks wasn’t growing people. Quite the contrary, it created an environment where people consistently underdeliver to a standard never reaching their potential.

It takes past better experiences or exceptional courage to step to self-organization when you feel the organization around you just wants you to focus on assigned tasks. I’m lucky to have past experiences that allow me to never obey blindly.


  1. Self-organisation has to include the possibility that people will make incorrect decisions based on a range of things, from conflicting instructions and a lack of knowledge or information down to how bad the traffic was or whether they got a seat or their train was delayed on the way to work.

    An important part of self-organisation is to develop and learn self-correction mechanisms, which your post describes. If a failure to deliver is always treated as a disciplinary matter, or blame is handed down where individuals have acted from reasonable motives, then it is not truly self-organisation.

  2. Great post -- I relate to this quite a bit with brand new team members...How much to give step by step instructions so they don't feel lost, how much to take a hands off approach with minimal direction so that they have to struggle a little bit and find their way forward but with the risk of feeling (too) overwhelmed and undersupported. Sounds like you got some useful info - your team is lucky to have you!