Hey there! My name is Sonya Siderova, founder & CEO at Nave. Here at Nave, we’ve been helping tens of thousands of managers deliver on their commitments, without overburdening their teams. And today, we’ll talk about why assigning users to the cards on your Kanban board is a bad practice.

As a manager, it might feel natural to you to be the one who hands out work to each team member.

It makes sense to have the designer take on design-related tasks, right? It feels like the most intuitive approach to take: each person on the team has specific expertise so they should do what they do best.

Besides, you’re the one responsible for the outcome, it’s only natural to assign each card on your To Do list to whoever has the best qualification to do the work. I’ve been there, myself.

“This is the most effective approach to get work done,” you might think.

Except when it isn’t.

Let’s say you assign the designer on your team to the card on the top of the To Do list (the highest priority work from a business perspective), but it turns out that she’s already working on another project.

Now you’ve hit a roadblock. If this person is the only one who can take care of the work, and it’s the most important work right now, the team will start skipping that task and move on to what’s been assigned to each and every one of them individually.

At some point, you end up in a situation where the priority of your work is defined by the availability of your team members instead of its business value.

Your team will be busy working on low-priority tasks while the most important thing is sitting and waiting in your backlog.

How to Empower Your Team to Divide and Conquer

What if, instead of assigning cards to each individual, you switch your perspective and give them the authority to make a decision on their own about who should be doing what?

What if instead, you enabled your team to self-organize around the work so they could decide on their own how to divide and assign the work?

Here is the thing. As a manager, you should indeed be the one in control. But that doesn’t mean you have to control the workers – instead, you’re shifting gears in how you control the flow of work.

You have to stop assigning individuals to the cards on your To Do list to achieve that goal. Instead, you have to leave them without assignees, and let the team assign themselves to the cards at the moment they initiate the work.

What happens next is that, ideally, the first available person picks up the top card on your To Do list (and yes, this applies to specialized teams as well, not just cross-functional teams).

“But Sonya, what if not everyone in my team is capable of doing the work? What if they are capable of getting it done but they are actually not willing to?”

Well, you kind of answered your question. These are all opportunities for improvement this approach revealed. If you end up in any of the situations above, then you take action to overcome these objections before moving forward.

Remember, progress means taking one step at a time. As one small win leads to another, you’re effectively building a culture of continuous improvement.

Regardless, it is the team who makes that decision.

It’s a simple switch in practice, but a profound switch in perspective.

Instead of them waiting for you to push a decision onto them, they now have autonomy and take ownership of the work.

It puts them from a passive position (“here is your assignment”) into the driver’s seat (“I am initiating this work item and will make sure we, as a team, will deliver on time”).

This strategy is so powerful because it removes the internal dependencies caused by assigning specific people to each card.

As a result, your most important work won’t wait on your To Do list anymore which ultimately leads to faster delivery times.

Furthermore, you’re directly removing knowledge silos about who on the team is capable of what type of work. Working together, your team will make faster, more efficient decisions than any one individual in charge of making assignments could.

Every Failure is an Opportunity for Improvement

At first, it may feel like a leap of faith to let your team members take charge of assigning the work themselves, instead of you doing it.

To make sure they are moving in the same direction, you have to set up a decision-making system that will suit as a guideline on how to handle different situations.

In Kanban, we enable that system by setting explicit process policies.

Think about which item should be pulled into the system first, how items with different priorities move to the system, what happens when an item gets blocked.

What should be happening in each and every situation? The answers to these questions become your explicit process policies.

Once you set this system up, you will quickly discover that your team members collectively will be able to manage the work effectively on their own following the rules.

The way I see it, it’s a beautiful solution not only because it’s so effective, but also because it’s less stressful and more meaningful for both you and everyone on your team.

Be mindful though that mistakes are inevitable, especially at the beginning when you’ve just made this transition.

Even if a team member slips up by, let’s say, forgetting to assign themselves a card, other team members are able to hold them accountable to fix the issue.

Remember, everyone has to fix their own respective problems, don’t encourage others to fix their mistakes for them.

The only way to learn and improve at something is to practice it. If someone does it for you, you won’t see much progress.

Whenever your team members fail at something, it’s an opportunity for improvement. If you think of it that way, it’s no longer even failure – it’s just part of the process of continuous improvement. The only real failure is when you don’t learn the lesson.

If you want to have a continuous improvement system in place, every single person in your system needs to feel the motivation to improve as they go.

And remember:

As a manager, you’re not losing control or letting go of responsibility when you let your team assign their own work.

Just as I said earlier, it’s a shift in perspective.

You are still in control – it’s just that instead of controlling people, you are controlling the process. You are in control of the explicit process policies, the decision-making framework, the business outcomes.

Focusing on managing other people won’t give you results. What will give you results is to manage the work and focus on all the activities that slow you down.

At the end of the day, here’s what I want you to remember:

  • Your work should be prioritized by business value, not by the availability of each individual
  • You will be able to improve your delivery speed and ultimately your business outcomes by letting your team make a decision on how to assign their own work
  • As a manager, the most effective approach you can use is to switch your perspective from managing the workers to managing the work itself

I hope this article convinced you that empowering your team to self-organize around the work will lead to getting that same work done faster and more efficiently.

And if you find this piece of content valuable, please spread this message to anyone you know who could use this simple but powerful shift in perspective.

Share this article on your go-to social media platforms and don’t forget to check back with me next week, same time, same place, for more managerial goodness. Have a wonderful, productive day!

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