One the things that I’ve been thinking deeply about lately is whether a particular todo, the building block of something greater, a project, should be assigned to just one individual or several individuals.

In Bloo, our software allows assigning a particular todo to more than one person, because we can see many cases where this flexibility is welcome, but the deeper questions is where this is the best thing to do to ensure that things are moved forwards.

There’s a phenomenon called the Ringlemann Effect, which states that the greater the size of team, the less individual effort each individual member will make.  He famously demonstrated this in a rope pulling exercise where he showed that a team will not pull as hard, individually, as one sole person pulling the rope.

  • If one person pull at 100%
  • Two people will pull at 93%
  • Three people will pull at 85%
  • Four people will pull at 77%
  • Eight people will pull at 50%

This leads us down the path of thinking that perhaps it is almost always best to give responsibility over one todo to one person, so they will maximize their effort on the particular task at hand, because they are the only one who “own” that particular thing.

Defining clear ownership is a great idea because it makes everyone aware of what will be measure and reviewed, and that clarity gives purpose to the working day. The worst possible thing is being unsure of what one should be doing, as then the effort that goes into the task might be felt that it is wasted as there are better opportunities to work on something else.

Sometimes, it’s worth assigning a particular todo to more than one person for the simple reason that there is one person who is actually doing the work, and someone else who is responsible for ensuring that the work is done to a particular standard or within a certain timeframe.  This is often the case with manager-employee relationship in a larger organization, where the owner of a todo may not, in fact, be the person actually doing the work.

However, this can easily be abused. I’ve seen dysfunctional projects where dozen(s!) of people need to be aware of every single thing. This is counter productive because everyone only has a certain amount of mental bandwidth to process information, and having too much information coming within a certain timeframe actually has the opposite effect that is intended. The person  is less aware that they would otherwise be.

This often happens with leaders in startups or growing teams, where they are used to being on top of everything, and quite suddenly the amount of traffic (information) grows at an exponential rate (something I’ve written about before).

The way to counter this tendency to be overloaded with information is simple:

Stop the flow!

Of course, the counter arguments for this are strong. How is one supposed to ensure quality or adherence to certain guidelines or rules if you can’t see what’s happening? My answer is simple: give your people a clear goal and direction, and clear mental models and tools to ensure that they can overcome the various problems they will most certainly encounter and also the trade offs that will need to make.

In addition, light daily reporting (like Daily Updates) can significantly reduce the overall amount of information movement while still transmitting the key information required, which is normally in regards to when things go wrong (I.e. are late or blocked) or when a certain milestone has been reached.
So, my advice is to generally try to assign one person to a todo, unless you use the assignment (this is specific to Bloo) to ensure that you receive notifications for that particular todo.

Never, ever, ever have more than 4-5 people assigned to a todo. If is is everyone’s responsibility, it generally means that nobody is responsible.

Don't let this be you.

You might then ask why we don’t programmatically block this type of behavior?

Well, there may be clever uses of todos and assignees that we haven’t thought of, and we would rather keep flexibility for our customers vs blocking them from achieving their goals.

Enjoy getting stuff done!