Updated: Jun 19, 2020
Recently we have gotten ourselves into the habit of managing our workdays through a process called Brief Sessions(our playbook is published here), a task management system that promotes self assigned tasking. Self tasking, in contrast to the usual task management process where team leaders assign tasks to their members, requires team members to create their own tasks to bring the team closer to the goal. There are a lot of positive reasons for this kind of task management, but also a lot of dangers and prerequisites for team members. I will be talking about all of these.
Why Self-Assigned Tasks?
Self-assigned tasks increase ownership of the tasks themselves and therefore increases the probability of them being completed within the time frame. It is also a good indicator for leaders of how their team members think. Since they are directly responsible for what they do with their time, how they use their time becomes more reflective of them. If someone tends to over assign himself tasks this could be an indication of enthusiasm but a lack in logistical thinking. If someone tends to under assign themselves tasks, this might indicate a lack of motivation or involvement in the process and might be worthy of some attention.
Allowing members to create tasks for themselves also allows them to think smarter about their tasks. It allows them to take good measure of their abilities and improves their skill in time management, preparation and adjusting to different circumstances as they come along. I refer to this as tactical thinking.
Self-tasking is also a good opportunity for people to learn more about themselves through balancing what they think they can do and what they can actually do. They learn more about how they work and in doing so, learn more about themselves. This adjustment with reality has become doubly important now where the concept of reality has become blurred and shaky. Self-knowledge and acceptance are the first steps to getting better.
Making it Work
If it is not obvious by now, let me point out that self-tasking will not work with just any employee in any organization. The individuals that take part in it and the organization that uses it have to have certain qualities for the process to work.
People for the Job
Based on my experience, here are a few qualities that would make the process smoother and increase the probability of success.
Open-mindedness. The participant has to be open to change and trying out new things. People who are resistant to change tend to find ways to discredit the process or twist it in a way that suits an existing idea in their head. Perhaps the biggest impediment is that these people usually stand in their own way, and a process aimed at self-betterment and self-discovery does not fare well against such resistance.
Transparent. Self-tasking requires a level of transparency between the team leader and the team member. Though real trust and transparency requires time and patience to earn, the participant must be predisposed to transparency. People who are naturally private and secretive will have difficulties though it is not impossible.
Self-awareness. Perhaps the most uncommon trait of all. This is not a requirement but it would help if several team members possess this particular trait. Of course this could also be learned and practised. Exercises to develop this within the team is highly recommended.
Organizations for the Job
It is not enough to find the right people for the self-tasking process, organizations who utilize it have to adjust as well. Here are a few policies that might help make the process more effective.
Transparency. Being transparent about the goals and plans of the team helps the members create tasks that make sense. The facilitator here should fully understand the direction of the organization to better advise people on how to improve their tasks.
Open Lines of Communication. Encourage communication and openness. The more free the flow of information the easier it is to adjust and facilitate.
Adaptability. An organization that is not afraid of adapting is a perfect fit for this process. If the organization is stiff and rigid, might as well do tasking through regular means.
Scheduling self-tasking, facilitation and monitoring and later on developing this into a habit the team shares, helps the process along. It is also important to track.
Motivation and Tactics
Figure 1: Motivation vs Tactics Chart
The chart above illustrates the relationship between tasks assigned and done to team member motivation and tactical ability.
Tactical ability here refers to the ability of the person to make things happen which requires good time management, a knowledge of his or her capability and a good grasp of situations. It is good, achievable planning.
Motivation is about more than the fortitude to see things through. It is also a conscious effort to do better. Behaviour in line with this quality is self-assigning tasks that go beyond the usual business-as-usual tasks and self assigning more than they can do comfortably. It is important as well to consider the kind of tasks people are self assigning. More weight should be given to tasks that go beyond everyday responsibilities and are in line with the direction or overall strategy set by the facilitator or team leader.
People may have different ways of handling people who fall in the different quadrants of the chart. At Overmind we follow the following per quadrant:
Quadrant 1. Every effort should be taken to encourage participation and inclusion from people who fall in this quadrant. If no change can be seen after several weeks, it might be better to exclude the person from the exercise and relegate him or her back to conventional structures. This is a matter of the wrong people on the bus. Extricate persons as soon as possible from the group.
Quadrant 2. The textbook underachiever. There may be several reasons for this. It may be a fear of failure, some misled idea that underachieving is cool or general unhappiness. Try to see what prevents the performance from happening and find a way to encourage the person to perform. In our experience we find that empowerment, support and encouragement work well if sincerity and transparency are present.
Quadrant 3. A case where employee development should be given a go. Knowledge and training will serve here.
Quadrant 4. Let them go with minimal guidance.
We have never had to deal with participants that fall under the 1st quadrant mainly because participation is non-compulsory and transparency about the activity is 100 %. Facilitators should be vigilant here and take measures to screen participants.
We have a few that fall on the three other quadrants. Quadrant 2 people require a change of mindset. The fastest way to get there that we have much success with is cultural change through value indoctrination. There has to be a re-orienting of what the group considers as values and this must be reflected in the facilitator himself. One of the values that had to be changed with us was this over-valuing of ideas vs work. It is said, in war amateurs talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics. Here are a few examples on how we were able to do this:
Structuring meetings and increasing ownership and responsibility of the person calling the meeting. I wanted to avoid off the cuff brainstorming sessions which did not really convert into action or didn't really get things done. I wanted people calling the meeting to be the first person interested in getting it done. I have seen meetings being used by people, especially bosses, as a substitute for real, actual work and didn't want that for my team. It was the equivalent of strategizing how to jog instead of just jogging. Counterproductive and moot. If you have a strategy or a plan, write it down and figure out where exactly you need help in, only then ask for other people's time.
Increasing transparency of tasks done. I wanted to take away the assumptions everyone had with each other regarding the amount of work being done. I remember I had one person working with me who always came up with ideas on how to better our system. One time he told me about one of his ideas and suggested I would be perfect to lead it. He stopped himself suddenly, took a step back and immediately withdrew the suggestion, saying that he forgot I was already doing too much. I wasn't. I had more than enough time. But I didn't correct him. It occured to me that this was probably happening with other people as well.
Let me point out that the quality of tasks are a more important metric to observe. We will be talking about that in the next part. These thoughts on task quantity and accomplishment are what I use as an informal indicator that helps decision making for human resource management. I have no specific data to base this on but rather good old fashioned common sense, visualization exercises and a great deal of self analysis. I have observed, however, that in the early days of self-tasking, these metrics held sway and participants used it as a way to gauge their own performance. The more discerning individuals, however, latch on early to the greater importance of the kind of tasks being self-assigned rather than the quantity.
Figure 2: Self Task Pyramid
As people get more involved with the process, they become more focused and self-aware. Their tasks evolve as well. Attention to quantity decreases while substance, relevance, effectivity and focus become more of a concern. People start to think strategically. I think it natural for anyone to try to maximize the effect of every effort and that is what happens here. People start to look at the number of tasks they do as the primary marker of productivity and look towards the effectiveness of the actual task. Will the task work? Will it help us reach our goal? Is it worth doing? These are questions to be expected later into the exercise.
One of our participants is a stellar example of this progression. He started out creating tasks based on what he thought was his function in the organization but then started thinking strategically. He figured if Overmind was to increase its sales then one of the key things was to lead the market which required engagement and SEO optimization. Now he had a goal, and a specific one. His tasks became about learning how to accomplish the goal and then to actually working on the goal. The project remains one of the biggest the team is involved in. He also managed to revitalize his other teammates and make it a shared goal for everyone. Now everyone is invested.
Our Progress So Far
We have been involved in self tasking since February and have collected quantifiable data as much as we could.
Figure 3: Showing individual amount of tasks done.
Figure 4: Showing Group Tasks Done vs Tasks Set
We still have 6 month to go in the year, but so far we see an upward trend in the number of tasks being accomplished and a closing gap between tasks set and tasks done. If the tasks were properly facilitated and proper direction given, the first table shows a rise in productivity. The process has worked well so far.
This data only shows the number of tasks. It is quite a different matter to gauge quality of tasks. I am currently trying to figure out a way to do so.