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Yegor Bugayenko
13 April 2014

No Obligations

It is a very common problem in project management—how to make team members more responsible and avoid micro management?

We start with creating plans, drawing Gantt charts, announcing milestones, motivating everybody and promising big bonuses on success.


Then everybody begins working and we start hearing excuses:

With excuses, team members transfer responsibility back to the project manager. There was a very famous article "Management Time: Who's Got the Monkey?" published in the Harvard Business Review about this very subject.

I recommend that you read it. Its authors present problems as monkeys sitting on our shoulders. When the project manager assigns a task to a programmer—he moves the monkey from his shoulders to the programmer's shoulders.

The programmer usually presents the excuse "I don't know what to do." Now the monkey is back on the shoulders of the managers. The goal of the manager is to send the monkey back to make it the programmer's problem again.

One of traditional way of transferring responsibility back to team members is to become an aggressive manager. For instance the manager may say, "You have a birthday tomorrow? I don't care, you still have to meet your deadline" or "You don't know how to fix the unit test? Not my problem, it should be fixed by tomorrow," etc.

We've all seen multiple examples of that type of aggressive management. Personally, I find this management style extremely annoying and destructive for the project. The project environment becomes very unhealthy and good people usually end up leaving.

Another traditional management method is micro-management. This results when the project manager checks task statuses every few hours and tells people what to do and how to handle problems. Needless to say, this management style ruins the team and causes good people to leave even faster.

However, in order to keep the project on track and meet all milestones, responsibility must be on the shoulders of the team members. They should be responsible for their own tasks and report back to the project manager when they are finished with their jobs.

Implementation problems should be solved by team members on their own. So, how do we accomplish this in XDSD?

I Owe You Nothing

In XDSD, there is the first fundamental principle that says everybody should be paid for deliverables. Based on this idea, we can go even further and declare a "No Obligations" principle.

In essence, for every team member, it says: if you don’t like the task assigned to you, don’t have time or you’re simply not in the mood—don't do it.

You have no obligation to do anything. You're free to reject every second task that a project manager gives to you or even all of them.

On the other hand, though, the project manager is not obliged to keep a task assigned to you for longer than 10 days (we think that this time frame is logical).

If you get a task, and don't deliver within ten days, the project manager can take it away and pay you nothing—no matter how much time you invested in the task already or the reasons for your failure to complete it.

Where Are The Monkeys Now?

This principle helps us to separate responsibilities between project manager and team members. The manager is responsible for finding the right people and assigning them appropriate tasks. There is a problem with the project manager's management style if he receives too many rejections from the team.

On the other hand, his team members are responsible for their tasks and should not provide excuses for non-completion. Well, team members can make excuses, but they won't change anything. No matter what their excuses are, the deliverables will be purchased only from members who manage to complete their tasks on time.

How Does This Affect Me?

When you're working with XDSD-inspired project, you should always keep the "No Obligations" principle in mind. You should start a task only if you're sure that you can finish it in a few days. You should pursue your tasks and control deadlines yourself. The project manager will not ask you for status updates, as usually happens with traditional projects. He will just take the task away from you after ten days if you don’t finish it. To avoid that, you should control your tasks and their deadlines.

With every task, try to be as lazy as possible and cut every corner you can. The smaller the amount of work you perform on a task, the easier it will be to deliver it and pass all quality controls.

Always remember that your efforts are not appreciated—only the deliverables matter.