Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 22;   June 3, 2009: One Cost of Split Assignments

One Cost of Split Assignments

by

Sometimes management practices have unintended consequences. To reduce costs, we keep staff ranks thin, but that leads to split assignments for those with rare skills. Here's one way split assignments can lead to higher costs.
Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting at the South Pole

Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting at the South Pole, December 16, 1911. The photographer was Olav Bjaaland. Amundsen had selected the members of his polar party to ensure that he had at least double coverage of most necessary skills. Each man had designated duties, but there was for each at least one man backing him up in case the man with primary responsibility should become incapacitated. Most teams in problem-solving organizations have only single coverage for critical skills, which Amundsen would have found appalling. Photo courtesy Norwegian-U.S. Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica.

One widely used model of human motivation is Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which orders human needs from lowest to highest as survival, security, belonging, and love, self-esteem, and finally self-actualization. According to the model, we focus our attention on the lowest-level unmet need. For instance, fears about safety prevail over any concerns about belonging to the right health club.

In problem-solving organizations, the lowest level needs that come into play are the social needs, including belonging. At home, belonging means a loving family, friends, and a social network. At work, belonging means friendship, respect, and acknowledgment. Belonging is fundamental to self-esteem, and hence to high performance and self-actualization.

When policies, decisions, assignments, and evaluations threaten people's sense of belonging, we threaten their self-esteem and depress performance.

After we remove someone's sense of belonging, high performance is not possible for long. In effect, when we hold out belonging — friendship, respect, acknowledgement, and inclusion — as a reward for performance, we cause an inversion in the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. It's a Catch-22: for humans, belonging is a prerequisite for high performance, but in many workplaces, belonging must be earned by first demonstrating high performance.

When we invert the order of Maslow's hierarchy, we risk a variety of troubles. For example, when we devise team assignments, we tend to focus on team needs and member capabilities. We assign some people with rare capabilities to multiple teams, switching them from team to team as the work requires. Often, the unintended message to those who remain assigned to a single team is that those with rare capability are more valued — they belong not to the team, but to an elite group.

Those who stay put can thus actually feel excluded from the elite. Their need to belong is unmet, which can erode self-esteem, and that affects their performance. Ironically, by using split assignments to optimize team performance, we erode the performance of those whose assignments are not split.

In this way, When we invert the order
of Maslow's hierarchy,
we risk a variety
of troubles
split assignments foster elitism and exclusion. Although the performance of the few might be high, the performance of the many can decline.

Making rare capability less rare is a far better choice. By having the experts train the less expert:

  • We reduce the need for split assignments.
  • We eliminate bottlenecks because more people can carry out a wider array of responsibilities.
  • We build stronger relationships between the most expert and the least expert.
  • We mitigate the risks of losing rare expertise to voluntary termination, illness, or accident.

More important, developing expertise limits the perception of elitism and exclusion, enhancing everyone's sense of belonging and self-esteem. The entire organization becomes more capable and productive. Enhanced performance might even enable headcount reduction — a much more sensible path to cost control. Go to top Top  Next issue: Long-Loop Conversations: Asking Questions  Next Issue

For an examination of the effect of Maslow Hierarchy inversions in the educational system, see The Need to Belong: Rediscovering Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs by Norman Kunc in: Villa, R., Thousand, J., Stainback, W. & Stainback, S. Restructuring for Caring & Effective Education. Baltimore: Paul Brookes, 1992.

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenygKPmhuZEgAxiFovner@ChacLInkHWpGgsYfeQvuoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness:

Jack-in-the-boxNo Surprises
If you tell people "I want no surprises," prepare for disappointment. For the kind of work that most of us do, surprises are inevitable. Still, there's some core of useful meaning in "I want no surprises," and if we think about it carefully, we can get what we really need.
Bill Moyers speaking at an event in Phoenix, ArizonaAsking Clarifying Questions
In a job interview, the interviewer asks you a question. You're unsure how to answer. You can blunder ahead, or you can ask a clarifying question. What is a clarifying question, and when is it helpful to ask one?
Governor Scott Walker of WisconsinIndicators of Lock-In: I
In group decision-making, lock-in occurs when the group persists in adhering to its chosen course even though superior alternatives exist. Lock-in can be disastrous for problem-solving organizations. What are some common indicators of lock-in?
Ammi Visnaga, a nile weed that has medicinal valueDown in the Weeds: II
To be �down in the weeds,� in one of its senses, is to be lost in discussion at a level of detail inappropriate to the current situation. Here�s Part II of our exploration of methods for dealing with this frustrating pattern so common in group discussions.
Terminal 3 of Beijing Capital International AirportRisk Creep: I
Risk creep is a term that describes the insidious and unrecognized increase in risk that occurs despite our every effort to mitigate risk or avoid it altogether. What are the dominant sources of risk creep?

See also Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Jeffrey Skilling, in a mug shot taken in 2004 by the United States Marshals ServiceComing May 23: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: IX
An arrogant demeanor is widely viewed as a hallmark of the narcissist. But truly narcissistic arrogance is off the charts. It's something beyond the merely annoying arrogance of a sometimes-obnoxious individual. What is narcissistic arrogance and how can we cope with it? Available here and by RSS on May 23.
The end of the line for a railroad trackAnd on May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIkebmbsoeZypFRxRner@ChacwvKCyzdoCiMyOzwJoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
This Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Caseprogram outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization, because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor. Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore five issues that make technical debt so difficult to manage, and develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.