Discover more from Software Design: Tidy First?
Sign-up Versus Assignment
Usually I build posts around 1 story but this time I’m going to use 2.
Story 1: I was talking with someone from Boeing who told me how the best mechanical engineers design the wing spars, the most complicated & consequential part of the design. My immediate reaction was, “I want everybody to be the best if I’m going to ride in that plane.” I quickly realized I was being unrealistic. Of course there’s a distribution of talent & of course you want the best talent on the hardest problem. Anything less & you’ll end up with a worse plane & worse planes are really worse.
Story 2: I was talking with a research group headed by Dan Ingalls. They were using new hardware so they needed to implement graphics primitives. He said, “Everyone on the team had implemented graphics primitives [Dan invented BitBLT] except X, so of course we had X do it.” It was the “of course” that confused me. Why would you have the least qualified person do a task?
The apparent contradiction between the stories reveals a tradeoff. Different strategies for deciding who does what work meet different criteria. Broadly speaking, there are 2 common strategies:
Assignment. Someone with a broad view chooses “the right person for the job”.
Sign-up. Those doing the work choose what they are going to do.
One of the innovations of Extreme Programming was a radical reliance on sign-up-based task matching. The zeitgeist has since shifted back to assignment which I think is a pity. Another story for another day.
As I started writing this piece I realized I could easily get in the weeds about the tradeoff between these strategies. I’m not going to do that just yet (but I certainly will in the future). I want to focus on the incentive effects of each strategy.
We’ll start with the incentives of the people doing the work. The first question is: does engineer motivation matter?
I think it does. When I was engineering day-to-day, if I cared about what I was working on I was just plain more effective. More energized. More creative. More responsible.
Sign-up creates motivation. I chose this task. I will do my best.
Assignment bleaches responsibility—you chose this task for me. If it goes badly it’s at least partly your fault.
Up The Chain
As a manager, the incentive to revert to assignment is clear. I’m a manager. I’ve chosen a life of service, not action. One of the few levers I have for direct control of what happens is assignment. I want the best people doing the most important jobs, because if they aren’t then I’m going to have less progress to report.
As I mentioned, how & when to move away from this incentive to take advantage of the incentives of sign-ups is a complicated tradeoff. Managers can create the social & organizational feedback loops to mitigate the weaknesses of sign-up.
The choice between assignment & sign-up is a choice. Choose but be aware of the incentives you are creating & responding to as you choose.
(There’s so much more to write about this topic, but that’s all for today. Please post your questions, stories, & dilemmas.)