The communal responsibility anti-pattern

Pattern

In the phenomenally successful 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Steven Covey describes the time management matrix, in which work is classified as important / not-important, and urgent / not-urgent. This gives us the following set of four quadrants:

time_management_matrix

In a nutshell, the point is that effective people spend their time in quadrants 1 and 2 – it can feel like you’re getting things done while in 3 and 4, and can feel good to be checking things off the list, but doing unimportant work doesn’t get you closer to your goals.

Furthermore, spending most of your time in quadrant 1 is a sure path to burnout. The more time you can spend in quadrant 2, the less you’ll end up in crisis mode, and the more control you’ll have over your situation. It’s a little more complicated than that, of course (it fills out a chapter), but that’s the basic gist.

Anti-pattern

There’s something missing from this model, though. Many tasks – some of them quite important – aren’t assigned to any one person or team. They’re communal responsibilities – no one can be held accountable if they aren’t done, no one individually will face negative consequences for ignoring them, but they’re frequently essential to the business in one way or another.

These are things like managing the recruiting process; following up on error messages; documenting procedures; investigating and assigning site bugs; updating a jar file, utility, or shared resource to a new point release; monitoring heartbeat emails. None of these are particularly exciting, some are critical to success, but all are frequently ignored or kicked down the road until there’s a crisis. When a company gets to a certain size, people are hired to fill each of these roles – but the smaller a company, the more these fall on the community of developers.

As such, we can add another axis – individual / communal – and reformulate the square as a 2x2x2 cube. On the front face we have the matrix as above, for individual responsibilities. But on the back face we have the following:

time_management_matrix_communal

There are a variety of serious problems with communal responsibilities. First off, everyone is busy with tasks they will be judged on – the last thing they need is a bonus task that someone else will probably take care of, eventually. As such, these tasks tend to be ignored until they’re in quadrant 5.

If someone does take personal responsibility for these tasks, they’re likely to pay a penalty for doing so. While they may be lauded for helping the team, they’re less likely to finish their assigned tasks well.

Furthermore, if someone does step up and take responsibility for handling these tasks, it’s easy for her to be saddled with them forever. Fun, exciting, intellectually stimulating projects are snatched up in a heartbeat, and communal tasks are usually the result of multiple cycles of Darwinian selection for the least interesting, most tedious tasks imaginable. It’s like the tragedy of the commons in reverse – no one mows the park lawn, until it’s overgrown and unusable. Unfortunately, no good deed will go unpunished, and it’s easy to get stuck doing this task indefinitely.

Quadrants 7 and 8 can also hit productivity in significant ways. They create new ways for people to waste time while feeling productive; add cognitive load and stress by creating persistent background responsibilities; and are frequently communicated via email blasts, which DoS everyone.

The opportunity

While these are terrible for organizations, they can also be great opportunities for individuals looking for a chance to shine. Taking over tasks in quadrants 5 or 6 can be a great long-term growth opportunity, since the one person who can’t avoid responsibility for these tasks is the head of the engineering hierarchy. The buck does stop somewhere, and pulling a thorn from that particular lion’s paw can pay off in the long run, as long as the work is noticed and appreciated. And, of course, as long as it isn’t done at the expense of assigned tasks. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, meeting expectations is the most important requirement in exceeding expectations.

The problem is that as a leader, you shouldn’t be relying on The Hope Method™ for important tasks (i.e., “I hope someone steps up and does X out of the goodness of her heart, because it needs to get done even if it isn’t important enough to prioritize”).

What to do

It isn’t always easy to identify all the communal tasks, or to assign them once you have (as mentioned above, these aren’t exactly the juicy bits). Ironically, it can also be difficult for people who’ve been spending a lot of their time on these communal tasks to step back once the tasks have been assigned – whether it’s the dopamine hit from crossing something off a list, or the persistent anxiety that if they don’t do it, it won’t be done (or won’t be done as well as they could do it), it can be hard for people to let go.

Still, it’s important to give it a start. Identify the items in quadrants 5 through 8. Throw away everything in 7 and 8 – seriously, just throw it away – if it isn’t important, it isn’t going to be done. Figure out what you can do to get the remaining tasks done in a consistent, reproducible way, ideally while they’re still in quadrant 6. Give them to an individual or to a team, and have them work in a round robin. Stop the flood of email to uninvolved developers. Stop heartbeat emails. A large part of this is about changing the culture – it’s always easiest to create a job that sends out regular email demanding attention, harder to create a dashboard. In the absence of negative pressure, communal responsibilities pop up like dandelions.

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