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The Slippery Slope from Personal Task Assignment to Lack of Team Ownership and Commitment

July 21, 2021

Sprint Planning is an important event that has a significant impact on the team’s effectiveness and productivity during the Sprint.
The most critical aspects of successful sprint planning are the level of the team’s commitment to the goal of the sprint and handling the Sprint Backlog.
To encourage the team’s commitment to the sprint, the Scrum Master (SM) should include all the members of the team in planning the Sprint and, together with them, craft a challenging Sprint Goal and estimate the tasks involved. Another important mission of the SM is to prevent managers from putting pressure on team members to take on more than they can deliver and commit to.

By following these guidelines, the team can create a challenging but achievable plan for the Sprint and so improve the team’s commitment to their jointly devised plan.

During sprint planning, personal tasks are often assigned to specific team members based on the estimated time they need, until the full capacity available to the sprint is reached.

This practice is supported by ALM tools (like Jira, ADO, and others) that help create a linkage between the team members and their tasks. These tools help each team member to filter their own tasks, making their efforts more comfortable and convenient to them and, by doing this, they create new habits.

So, what’s the problem with doing this?

The practice of assigning personal tasks may give the team members the wrong impression that the Sprint Backlog and the tasks are personal; however, they should not forget that the main goals of a Sprint Planning event are to determine the team’s mission and to encourage the team members to take ownership of tasks.
If each team member focuses on completing just their own tasks, they tend to perform more like a “group” of people working side by side than an actual team.

This situation impacts team productivity from different aspects:

  • It loses the advantages of working as a team. Aristotle said: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. This pearl of wisdom is especially relevant when it comes to working within a team.
  • It creates a high level of Work in Progress (WIP) – Each team member focuses only on their own tasks, which increases the cycle time and reduces the team’s overall velocity.
  • Measuring personal performance – It creates a need for micromanagement and harms motivation.

How should we handle this situation?
The SM should understand that task assignment is solidly connected to the level of the team’s maturity and must be handled based on the team’s actual maturity and experience.

In the early days of the team, the practice of assigning personal assignments can be used to give the team more confidence in the process and in the sprint plan itself. However, throughout the sprint, the SM can challenge the team members by advising them to switch tasks with other members, while still focusing on the overall goal of keeping up the team’s commitment to the sprint and conveying the message that “backlog items are not personal items”.

As the team grows and matures, the SM can guide them to the next level by assigning only the first few tasks that the team should start working on in the first days of the sprint and leaving the rest ready to be picked up by the next available free member.

In summary:
The SM plays a significant role in helping the team to increase their sense of accomplishment.
SMs need to make sure that the members of their team do not confuse “personal assignment” with “personal ownership”.
By ensuring that the team is focused on the overall goal of the sprint and the team’s mission, the SM can help their team to achieve a much higher level of satisfaction, effectiveness, and productivity.
The team’s motto should be: “Do more in the same amount of time”.

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