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Context: I am an employee in a semi-small company, where most people have multiple responsibilities and tasks concurrently. Most of the time, there is no explicit/formal definition of projects responsibility. There is a hierarchy with about 5 managers managing about 5 employees each. Work contracts usually last for ~5 years, so there is a relatively high turnout rate, including for managers (this is because of the company's field, not because of the company ambiance).

Issue: Since project responsibility is rarely assigned explicitly, it has become customary for managers and team members alike to assign it implicitly to anyone who either:

  • propose an idea to approach the issue, even partially,
  • or is assigned a smaller task related to the project (eg, an intern or team member is asked if he/she can complete a small task related to a project, and from there the project responsibility is assumed to be on his/her shoulders).

I feel this attitude is counter-productive, as it prevents team members to voice ideas or invest in projects or tasks even partially, as doing so would usually result in them getting responsible for yet another project.

Question: Is this kind of implicit delegation of project responsibility common and normal? If not, how to avoid being the target of this method without being rude or unprofessional?

/EDIT: Thank you all very much for your answers, even though I cannot apply most advices because of other issues at my company, this made me realize the complexity of the issues I am dealing with, with our corporate culture being one of the culprit. I divided the accepted answer reward and the bounty to two answers as I could not accept both.

  • As an additional context, personally I avoid applying this method, I only do explicit delegation (even though the top boss told me to do it). Also, I don't want to completely back off from contributing to projects where I know I can be of significant help on specific task, contrary to what are doing most other team members by now, but I cannot continue to assume more projects than I can. I ask this question now specifically because I have a situation now where I can significantly help but cannot take the responsability (for various reasons including workload and legal aspects). – gaborous Feb 18 '18 at 23:38
  • What does "being responsible for the project" mean in this context? – Erik Feb 19 '18 at 8:12
  • @Erik basically you become the project leader, with the responsibility in case of failure (or non compliance to legal laws if this pertains to a legal obligation). – gaborous Feb 19 '18 at 13:29
  • So if the project fails, you get the fallout for it? Do you also get the benefits of a succesful project? – Erik Feb 19 '18 at 13:30
  • I get the fallout yes, for the benefits this is more muddy: I already successfully led several projects I was implicitly assigned, I got thanked but I didn't get any additional recognition in terms of status or role (eg, I want to lead a project I propose, the boss and managers tell me I don't have enough experience and this is not my role...). – gaborous Feb 19 '18 at 13:33
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Is this kind of implicit delegation of project responsibility common and normal? If not, how to avoid being the target of this method without being rude or unprofessional?

In my experience implicit delegation of responsibilities is prone to fail. Doesn't matter if it is a big or small company, if there is no clear delegation and project leads the development and design process becomes way slower and cumbersome.

I am also currently working on a small company/startup, and I have experienced those "mixed responsibilities" present also in your company. In the case of such companies, it is even more important to have clear roles and tasks delegated, so proper follow-up can be given to them.

So, regardless it is "normal" or not, it is a situation that should not be that way, and thus there are some things I can point out here:

  • The next time you see this happening, speak out and ask for confirmation of the delegation. No need to be rude as you said, I would go with something like this:

    Sure thing boss. So, you want me to take full responsibility on this project from now on? I'll gladly do so. What should I do with [other tasks you have] in that case?

    This way you are (1) making it explicit if you are, or not, in charge of such project and (2) professionally asking what to do with the other tasks you already have so you can manage them properly and don't end up in a compromising situation.

  • After making it clear who is now in charge, I suggest you make a paper trail of it, so everything is documented and you have evidence to backup any actions you make. After clarifying who is in charge and what is to be done with your other tasks, send an email explaining so:

    Hello everyone. As discussed with Boss, I will be in charge of this task, and will attempt to do [...]. Also, I will be putting on hold my other tasks as to fully commit to this task, and will resume then as soon as possible.

    This way there will be no doubts who is in charge of what, and no one will argue about why your other tasks are not progressing.

  • Try to make all this on a regular basis. Not only you will be CYA, but hopefully this good practice will catch on your other coworkers and managers, possibly aiding your whole company with a better communication flow and clear responsibilities. Of course, this may take time, but as long as you do it this should mean no problem to you.

  • Thank you for the advice, but unfortunately tried and it resulted in my boss saying "yeah that's problematic, but all these tasks are important, you should make them all, I'm sure you can do it". Yeah, my boss is very bad at prioritizing... – gaborous Feb 27 '18 at 21:49
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    @gaborous sorry to hear that, your boss seems quite unreasonable here if he reacted thay way. At least you now know explicitly that the task is your responsibility, which was your main question, so you know now how to proceed. Perhaps next time try to not "propose an idea" when you are already full on tasks, so you can have a tolerable work burden. – DarkCygnus Feb 28 '18 at 0:48
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I think you need to raise this issue with management almost exactly as you have done here, but with more specific examples of implicit responsibility transfer. You should propose that each project has a specific owner and that there should be a system of record for identifying the owner of each project. Explain that this is needed for clarity and that this lack of clarity makes the workers reluctant to volunteer for small tasks.

As to whether it is common or normal, I will say that it's a pattern I've seen before. Although in those cases it was more a matter of different sections of code within a software product. The team got into this situation of "the last one who touched it owns it" naturally as the project aged, and the original implementors moved on leaving large sections of software "unowned".

  • Thank you for your answer, but this is a very rooted practice in my company that I do not think (or wish to risk) to change for now with my current status. For the moment I am more looking for ways to avoid this issue to impact me as much as possible, instead of changing how the company behave. – gaborous Feb 23 '18 at 21:11
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    @gaborous If you aren't willing to change the environment by bringing up the problem to the management team then I would recommend you look for a new job. What you are describing is a culture lacking in ownership and accountability. A company based on that foundation is doomed to failure. – DanK Feb 25 '18 at 11:26
  • @DanK A few months later, the "lack of accountability" is jumping on everyone's faces: there was a reorganization of tasks with a new layer of management between me (and my colleagues) and my boss. This layer of management is now complaining about the burden of the responsibility of overseeing their own team's production and workload... They want to lead, but without managing! – gaborous Nov 25 '18 at 2:32
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+100

"I would like to specifically address the problem of implicit delegation, as I think it lowers the productivity of the whole team including mine since we become wary of contributing any idea or solution.".

I guess if you hide in the back and never raise your hand or voice, you can hope to be forgotten, but that helps nothing and as you said encourages more of the same (increasing the problem).

Instead you can speak up.

Say you'll be happy to do "X" and "Y", but not "Z"; but only if you can unload "A", "B", and "C" into the job jar. If you can't unload "A", "B", and "C" then maybe you could do "Z" but only if you can unload "A" and "B" ...

It doesn't have to be a good idea to let you out of "A", "B", and "C", the management only has to either agree or understand the need to not have too much on your plate or speak when your mouth is full.

It sounds like there's too many "managers" and not enough employees, are they all partial owners? They need to manage better, like delegate explicitly and fairly, retain staff ($$$), and hire more employees to distribute the load.

Three less managers and four more employees would seem better, but obviously that's neither a change you are going to make or want to suggest.

Perhaps some Scheduling or Time Management software would help, try to assess load and 'time to delivery' - attempt to divide it evenly, and give a particularly difficult project to the talented managers (unless they are owners whom contribute money and little else).

Alternatively you could wedge yourself between the owners and the employees, you be the one whom delegates better and whom assesses progress and where work needs to be reapportioned.

Sometimes it's easy to see there's a problem, sometimes not.

Sometimes it's easy to speak up about a problem, sometimes not.

Sometimes it's easy to fix a problem, sometimes not.

If you can't do any of those three, preferably the first and third, nothing will change.

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    Thank you for your answer, it's full of practical advices that I can try. About suggesting to replace something in my current workload to make room for the new task, this is a sound advice, but I have tried it already and I usually get the reply that I should "just take some vitamins and for sure you'll make it" along with "don't complaint, everybody has a lot of work" (although I am one of the only to have done considerable overtime to complete the tasks). Do you have an additional advice for this point? – gaborous Feb 25 '18 at 18:23
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    It sounds like that's the reason for the turnover ... Unless they are as generous with the money as they are with their 'take a pill and shut up' advice. I guess you need to make sure your resume is up to date and get a far better offer for them to counter. No reason you should bail while everyone else drills holes. If everyone else is overworked they should be supportive of your suggestions. – Rob Feb 26 '18 at 2:35
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    "If everyone else is overworked they should be supportive of your suggestions", this makes total sense. This is however not the reason for turnover, it's intrinsic to the field unfortunately... But this is sound advice, thank you. – gaborous Feb 27 '18 at 20:57
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As usual with workplace related question, yours is actually a mix of questions and context.

If I were to break down your question, it would boil down to this:

1: Is it normal for small companies to assign workload arbitrarily and without proper tracking?

2: What can I do to avoid picking up tasks I don't like for whatever reason?

Having worked in similar environments as an executor, not a leader, I can summarize my answer to the question of "Is this normal?" to be "It depends."

Usually, if it "works", as in it produces desired results within a reasonable time frame, then don't try to fix it.

"Fixing" it might imply more work than it's worth and could bring you at odds with the "powers that be" in the company. If it doesn't or for some reason you are concerned with other parameters of the execution of the task that are not tracked, the solution I found was to add those extra parameters of concern to the Definition of Done. So for example if I'm concerned that a certain task must have unit tests, must properly merge and the resulting code must build into a working artifact, then add these requirements to the Acceptance Criteria of the story (or requirement) that generated the task.

A Continuous Integration framework could help you in formalizing these requirements in sets of automated checks you run on each commit for new tasks.

In regards to your second question: what can I do to avoid being tasked with arbitrary stuff I care very little about?

The solution I found was to always be busy with something.

In corporate speak, "be proactive".

What that meant for me is scouring the backlog daily for old or new defects, unfinished tasks or (god forbid) technical debt items that I could work on. Since I was a tester, there's never a shortage of testing tasks for me to perform (fixing tests, infrastructure, test environments, improving older tests, turning bugs into automated checks for regression purposes etc.)

No self-respecting manager would ask you to drop whatever you are doing if that thing adds value to her project and is more important than whatever bs task is next on the backlog.

Having a groomed backlog (where stories and defects are ordered by importance and impact) helps a lot with this.

So in conclusion:

Is it normal?

Not really, but if it's their way of writing software and it works for them, don't challenge it, unless you are ready to prove your point.

What can I do to avoid being the target of bs tasks?

Get busy of your own accord on important things.

  • Thank you for the advices, I tried that by overworking in order to be able to achieve regular completion on various stuff, including ones that are long standing issues that were huge performance sink for the whole team. At some point I reached a rate of 2 achievements per week, which is quite a lot in our field (usually it's 1 per month for very efficient workers). But I just got more and more tasks (and no reward)... – gaborous Feb 27 '18 at 21:51
  • Also in my case implicit delegation does not work at my company, clearly, because to achieve all these tasks the workers have to overwork, or to miss the deadlines (usually the latter happens, systematically and yet nobody does anything). Thank you for making me realize that. – gaborous Feb 27 '18 at 21:52
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    You seem to be missing my point. The main idea was to be busy with something not with everything. So pick a single task you like and bring it to completion. Pick no other tasks on the side as you are fully booked dealing with the first. Do not try to multitask. Multitasking is for computers, and even they do it poorly. – BoboDarph Feb 28 '18 at 8:23
  • you're right, thanks for the clarification. However, even if I entirely agree with you, I understood we have a culture of "being busy" as being cool, which is primarily reflected by being multitasking (even though it might be less efficient). As you wrote, I recognize now this issue is more complex than it looks, with a mix of different culprits, including our corporate culture. – gaborous Mar 1 '18 at 20:34
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    It's always context. In my experience at least. There is no good or bad way of doing things. There is what works and what doesnt. And while some methods will never work, no matter the context, the result of the rest will vary depending on who's looking at it. – BoboDarph Mar 2 '18 at 14:20

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