Roulette Delegation

I've been thinking about a new management workflow experiment. It's very simple and works on any team that does mental work. Here's how it works, in the context of a manager and an IC:

  1. The manager is considering giving a task to an IC. They discuss it and the IC gives an estimate of how much work it'd take.
  2. The manager decides to delegate the task to the IC. They add it to their PM tool.
  3. The tool functions just like a normal PM tool, except that it occasionally triggers a reversal and re-assigns the task back to the manager who delegated it (who now is responsible for completion). The reversal happens at random and with a 1% chance.

For an engineering manager, this would mean sitting down and actually implementing the feature. For an executive, it'd mean being the DRI of the task and doing it directly, etc. It should be noted that it's fine to have assistance or supervision, but it should be primarily them completing the task. Also, you need a system where a task is recorded in a tool (so a plugin can provide the randomized reversal capability). It's also important for the task assignment to be final (not undoable), or else the whole process becomes meaningless.

Why do this? Because humans have a natural tendency to be wasteful with resources that they control, but for which they don't directly feel the consequences1. The archetypal example is the financial agent handling other people's money. However, this phenomenon happens across organizations with other types of resources too. The common tech example is the PM that offloads time-consuming tasks to team members that they themselves would not do, just out of convenience. When the feedback cycle is simply "sending Slack messages and clicking some buttons → task done," this becomes easy to overdo.

With this above workflow, there's a long-term 1% "loss" of productivity as managers do actual tasks instead of their primary work. However, what it does in exchange is provide rare, but real reminders of what it feels like to actually do the work (something that's exceedingly rare in certain positions). My sense is that this leads to a decision making process that improves far more than 1% by adding a bit of "skin in the game." After all, imagine that you are about to offload a laborious 50-hour task to someone. You know that it almost always goes through the PM system – but you can't know if today will be the rare day it reverts to you. If that happens, and you didn't think the task through, it'll be you wasting those 50 hours. Wouldn't you think twice before pulling the trigger? 

August 7, 2023
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