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Recently, I had a following problem on my team: One team member was going for vacation and he had two critical tasks assigned. He wasn't able to finish them before leaving. So we had a discussion whose responsibility should it be. Team member's, team leader's, no ones - team should just handle this issue?

I will add that we try to utilize agile and Kanban methods.

All the people who were capable to take over those tasks are sitting in one room.

  • I'm curious - is this a general question, or a specific problem? You said all of the team members capable of doing the tasks were in the meeting, but you don't say how it ended. Did some of those members assume responsibility, or were the tasks left hanging, with no one stepping up to them? – Trevor K. Nelson Oct 5 '11 at 13:43
  • It is a general question - that's why I didn't say what happened. I wanted to know what are approaches in other teams wether they are self-organizing or not. – Piotr Leszczyński Oct 5 '11 at 13:53
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The responsibility of allocating resources, be it human, money, tools, materiel, or time, rests with leadership. I doubt you would ever see "allocate resources" as part of the role description of a team member. So if your resource allocation needs to shift for whatever reason, a leader needs to make those decisions. After all, managing a project is all about balancing constrained resources.

In practice, however, especially on a high performing team where you have evidence of synergy, collective success or failure, decreased intra-competition, etc., a bit of the transfer can occur in the ranks with little overall threat. While a manager can delegate that to some degree, it cannot occur in a vacuum; it must be ultimately approved by the lead and the team to ensure another area of the team did not break in the process, i.e., evidence of a lack of coordination.

  • I was rather thinking about self-organizing teams and that it should "just work" in such team. – Piotr Leszczyński Oct 5 '11 at 12:00
  • That's what I addressed in the second paragraph. While you set out to have this self-organizing team, it takes time to get there, in which case someone with authority needs to make those critical decisions. Else, a high performing team ought to be able to manage this with only good coordination taking place. – David Espina Oct 5 '11 at 12:17
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It pretty much depends on rules you have in a team. If we discuss a mature team I would expect people would take responsibility for handing the task over and I mean here both: person who will be absent and those who will undertake the task and complete it.

The former should plan for their absence and verbalize somehow the need for help. The latter should volunteer to finish the tasks. That's what I would expect from mature teams.

If we discuss less mature team I believe the more responsibility goes to the leader. I mean in every case the leader should actually be aware of the situation and act when the result of team self-organization isn't going to end up well. With less mature team it's just more likely that leader's action will be required to sort things out.

I don't say the leader should directly tell people who does what. A bit of encouragement and direction can be enough. Actually the less the leader is involved the better.

You also mention that you use Kanban. Depending on the process policies you have the problem can sort of solve itself. I mean if the task is "abandoned" and the team knows how to act in such case their reaction may be perfectly fine even when a task isn't formally handed off. However probably you should signal one's absence in some way on the board in this case.

  • Talking about Kanban we don't have any marker that would mean I'm absent. So in this case I didn't want to solve it with the board, but to have it solved by the team. – Piotr Leszczyński Oct 5 '11 at 13:56
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I think both David and Pawel gave great answers.

Self-organizing or not, the answer is the same. It's up to the team member to make sure his work will continue, but it's also the responsibility of the team leader to ensure that that does happen.

This is where I tend to struggle with the idea of self-organizing teams.

Ultimately, someone has to be responsible, and accountable.

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In the teams I've been involved with, vacations and time off were known well in advance and just rolled into the schedule from the beginning so the task hand over was sort of assumed. However, I did find this piece of advice that seems relevant:

Determining the team’s capacity is critical to a successful planning session. This should be the first activity in the planning meeting. Two best practices for determining the team capacity are:

1) The total capacity of the team should be based on the number of team members times the number of days in the iteration times (no more than) 6 hours.

2) Start the planning session by establishing who has vacation time planned for the upcoming sprint, and capturing that information in a vacation story. The vacation story has tasks for each team members’ time away, which account for some of the team’s capacity when stories are being committed. As the sprint progresses and the vacation days are hit, the burn-down chart reflects these time-away tasks being completed along with any other tasks. This prevents the burn-down from falsely indicating a problem.

http://blog.3back.com/planning/perfect-planning-%e2%80%94-best-practices-for-successful-agile-planning

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I want to add to what David's said, "The responsibility of allocating resources, be it human, money, tools, material, or time, rests with leadership." I think, though, the question might be more about what leadership. Does that mean a defined position, or leadership from within a completely self-organized team?

If you have a project manager or a product owner or Scrum master or however your team is organized, it is ultimately their responsibility to figure out who is working on what tasks when. That said, it's the responsibility of the person who's leaving (particularly if it's for an extended period of time, like maternity leave) to communicate the details of their absence to the project's leadership.

How do you do that? I'm a big fan of one-on-ones. From "How to work maternity leave into your long-term projects":

These are not your regular individual meetings because the communication needs to extend beyond tasks and deliverables to any concerns about what will be taking place during the team member’s absence, as well as any developments that require immediate adjustments to the project schedule or priorities. Keep consistent notes from these sessions, and bring in the appointed backup person for any issues that they will need to be aware of or take over.

Those meetings will also help clarify how whoever is going on vacation or taking family leave is prepping for their time away from work. Just like with everything related to project management, communication is key, and I think that task ownership is a shared responsibility between whomever is leaving and whomever is responsible for the project, and failure comes from one side of the equation withholding information from the other.

  • It's worth mentioning that neither a product owner nor a scrum master have any responsibility for figuring out who does what within a scrum team. – Erik Apr 18 at 9:35

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