Koan #19: That's Not My Task

We usually send the situation in one newsletter and results in a following newsletter. Here the situations and results are copied verbatim into one post. Hence, when it says 'you' - it means the subscribers who voted in newsletter, not readers of this archive.
This situation was published in the 07 Jun 2021 newsletter.


Alex, India, Jayden and Jo are all your direct reports or ‘team’. They are working on a project which is nearly finished and there are just two key tasks that need completing. At the beginning of the project the team decided that these two tasks would fall to Alex and India. Now, however, India says that they cannot make it in time, and Jayden and Jo are reluctant to take it, as it was not their task in the original plan. What would you do?

Option A - Meet with Jayden and Jo to ask why they don’t want to take on the task, and offer to support them in completing the task.

Option B - Delegate the task to Jayden or Jo, offering support along the way if they need it; they’ll probably learn something from it.

Option C - Meet with Alex, Jayden, Jo and India to discuss how they see their roles in the team and work out between them who should do the task based on that discussion.

Option D - Meet with India to discuss why they cannot make it in time, and work with them to ensure that they (India) can still take on the task.


As you read last week, Andrew Grove said, “Delegation without a follow-through is abdication.”

This applies as much this week as it did last week. Another consideration for this week is that there may be a lack of ownership of tasks and projects as a whole by the team, as well as potential time management challenges. You need to understand why India is backtracking on their commitment to complete one of the final tasks, and why Jayden and Jo are reluctant to take on the task. Finally, you need to consider which action makes the most sense in the short term, before the end of this project, and in the longer term for the good of the team.

50% of subscribers who voted this week chose Option C, to discuss with the team how they see their roles and from this work out the plan. This is the best option for the long term. If each person knows their role and purpose within the team, you are less likely to come across this issue again in the future. As one subscriber added, ‘[It] seems like the team is not set up with shared goals- if that were the case it wouldn’t matter who takes the task as everybody would be scrambling to get the project finished!’ Due to the time pressure of this particular task, we would suggest that it would be more effective to complete the current project and then Option C, in order to ensure that you meet the deadline. In this case, we would recommend Option D in the short term and Option C for the longer term, as suggested by a subscriber in the comments.

Option A, meeting Jayden and Jo to discuss why they did not want to take on the task, is almost a dilute version of Option C. It considers the rationale behind Jayden and Jo not wanting to take on the task, but it does not ensure that the task will get completed, and allows India to get away with saying they do not have time. Option B ensures that the task will get completed, but is approached in a way that is more about power than purpose, and again gets India off the hook.

Apologies for any confusion due to a typing error on Option D, it should have said that India would be supported to complete the task by you, their manager, helping them to be able to complete the task they committed to in time. If you, and the rest of the team, know that India said they would take on one of the final tasks at the start of the project, then this should be followed through. People often shy away from being really explicit about what is expected, as giving orders is no fun. When India agreed to the task they showed a willingness, understood the terms and had the resources to do it. It seems that now they do not have the resources, notably time, and you need to support them.

You will need to plan the conversation with India and it is unlikely it will feel natural or comfortable. You need to make it clear to India that if they had let you know with more warning that they did not have the time, then an alternative plan could have been made. In this case, the deadline is looming and there is no reasonable way to change the fact that they agreed to do it. You could ask something like: “Do you recall that as a team we agreed that you and Alex would be in charge of these final two tasks?’ If they say no, you’ll have to remind them of the details. If yes, then inquire into what happened, perhaps by asking, ‘Please help me to understand what happened and why you didn’t let me know ahead of time that you were falling behind?’

Whatever their response is, the response must be direct, honest, and respectful. You should invite collaboration on how you will fix the issue that they feel they cannot deliver on time. By considering their concerns and ideas, you set the stage for them to accept your decision— even if it is not the one they had hoped for. There are many concrete ways you can help others with time management, but the key here is probably about prioritising. If the conversation goes this way, support India to prioritise their current work, so that they are able to clarify what is standing in the way of this task.. It may be a lack of clarity of the task, over commitment or something else.

By the end of the meeting, India should know what is expected, by when, and India should let the rest of the team (Alex, Jayden and Jo) know that they will be completing the final task on the project. You may also want to set smaller deadlines to enable you to monitor their progress on the task without micromanaging.

In the longer term, you may need to help them to understand how they are using their time by carrying out a time audit, which they can then discuss with you. You may find that they need to plan and estimate their time better, or that systems that you have put in place actually hinder their productivity.