For High Performing Teams, Stop Assigning People to Multiple Teams

For High Performing Teams, Stop Assigning People to Multiple Teams

In an effort to do more with less, most organizations take their best people and assign them to multiple projects. This approach rarely leads to high performing teams and actually results in less work getting done.

And it isn’t just their best people, everyone seems to be assigned to multiple teams at the same time. They do this with everybody.  All the initiatives are high-priority so everyone has two or more high priorities at the same time. Some people even have as many as 5 projects.

With this approach, each person has multiple teams they are working on and multiple “number one priorities”. This practice results in organizations getting less done, it reduces organizational agility and it undermines high performing teams. Let’s dig into each of these claims to see why they are true.

Assigning People to Multiple Projects is Counter-Productive

Ironically, the main reason that managers assign people to multiple teams and projects is to get more work done. It doesn’t work! I wrote about this use of “fractional resources” in my recent post, Project Managers Still Don’t Get Agile.

In that article, I stated that the assignment of fractional resources creates an illusion that a lot of work is getting done. It simply doesn’t work!

This practice is also dehumanizing to the people who are being assigned to multiple projects. It is most painful for those top performers who can easily wind up assigned to four or five projects.

I hear horror stories from those best performers working on five projects at the same time. They say that they do nothing but go to project status meetings (or worse, daily standups!) for all their various projects. Ironically, the focus of those status meetings is the work not getting done.

“Less work gets done with fractional resources. Team members are continually shifting their focus between projects. Inevitably there is too much work and each team member is juggling multiple priorities and frequently overwhelmed. A common refrain is ‘just tell me what to work on’. Context switching and multi-tasking reduce individual effectiveness by as much as 40%. 

Another point that I didn’t state previously related to productivity is that to complete the work of the team, you are going to need more people on the team when you use part-time people.

For the same amount of work, more fractional resources means more people overall. So the work that may have taken 5 full-time resources to do is actually going to take 10-15 people when they are part-time assigned.

When we factor in the communications overhead of that many people, this cuts productivity down by another 50% or more. Teams spend the bulk of their time just communicating, and bringing others up to speed on their status.

Assigning People to Multiple Teams Reduces Organizational Agility

If you are looking for agility, putting individuals on multiple teams is heading in the wrong direction. As I wrote in Project Managers Still Don’t Get Agile, agility is decreased when people are fractionally assigned to multiple teams.

A negative side effect of using fractional resources is that each person on the team will be used for their primary skill only, whether that be java development, salesforce configuration or testing.

They don’t have the time or opportunity to develop other skills. This continued use of single specialty team members is self-reinforcing – the more you do it the more you will need to do it. Individual specialists represent key person risks and they limit business agility.

“This approach also necessitates handoffs between specialty team members, for example, from business analyst to developer and developer to tester. Each handoff represents as much as a 50% loss of information. 

Fractional Resources are Incompatible with High Performing Teams!

While lower productivity and business agility are good reasons to avoid fractional resources, I think there is an even bigger reason to avoid it. That is that part-time team members undermine high performing teams.

When we assign people to multiple teams, we get a fractional person on each of those teams. This undermines high performance in the following ways.

Fractional Resources Result in Lack of Commitment

Part-time resources weaken commitment from everyone else. If I am only 25% available for your project, I am I really committed to your success? And if I am on a team where others are only partially committed, why should I be the one who is committed.

Fractional Resources Are Not There When You Most Need Them

When people have 2 or more concurrent projects, chances are that deadlines and milestones are going to collide. As a result, one or the other project is going to suffer. This makes for lower performance and unpredictability to boot.

Phantom Delays

The unpredictability experienced by having these part-time resources is ironically, predictable. Steve Denning talks about delays and phantom work jams in his book, The Leaders Guide to Radical Management.

The idea is that there are wait times and hidden delays that cause work to get done much slower than anticipated. When our part-time team members aren’t even around to learn or hear about opportunities to help.

Part Time Team Members Are almost Never Co-Located

It is physically impossible to sit together with your team members when you are on multiple teams. As I’ve written before, teams that are co-located are twice as productive as those who are not. So you are already starting 50% behind if you don’t co-locate.

Fractional Resources Undermine Team Self-Organization

When there isn’t a critical mass of team members, self-organization usually goes out the window. Instead, someone steps in to become the hub for communications and organization.

This could be a project manager or a Scrum Master, but either way, self-organization goes out the window and with it, the benefits you would have achieved.

What to Do Instead – Build People Then Build Products

We Don’t Have Enough People to Meet Our Commitments

One of the main reasons people give for assigning people to multiple teams is that they don’t have enough people. If you don’t have enough people for all the work you have taken on, the answer is pretty clear.

It’s not about more people, it’s about less work, and just as important, less concurrent work. Stop taking on so much work, and complete the work you have in the most productive way possible.

We have a Few Key People that Need to Be Involved In Everything

But if your problem is that you have several key people with specialized skills that are needed across multiple projects, then the recommended solution is different.

Cross-train and grow your team to become more capable and to have T-Shaped skill sets. As Craig Larman and Bas Vodde quote Toyota in their Scaling Lean and Agile book, “Build People, then Build Products”.

Chances Are that You’ll Ignore This

In summary, continuing to assign people to multiple projects and teams reduces productivity, decreases business agility, and undermines the performance of your high performing teams.

The more you do it, the more you will reinforce the practice and you will create a spiral that is impossible to break out of.

Despite reading this, you’ll ignore it. Somehow you think that you or your people are different. You’ll believe that the laws of physics don’t apply and you can get more from people by assigning them over and over again. Good luck with that.

Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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