Every person working in splendid isolation is not always the best way to get things done, as it leads to people spending hours to do things that another team member might do in minutes. In a well-functioning team, work is fluid – it flows from one team member to another according to each person’s expertise and availability, always being done by the person best able to do it. Unfortunately, this never lasts. Everyone’s specialized, and inevitably every team gets divided into those who produce “team work” (i.e. work that is not part of anyone’s own schedule or performance metrics but contributes to overall progress) and those who consume it. Sooner or later, someone becomes overloaded. Schedules slip, someone complains about being blocked, one person is accused of not being responsive enough while another is accused of being too selfish, team spirit is lost, yadda yadda yadda. If you’ve worked in computing, particularly at a startup, you’ve seen all of this. I suspect it’s pretty much true throughout the business world, but it seems to be a particularly common and serious problem in the sorts of places I’ve worked.

Trying to make everything explicit and formal, with every ten-minute task accounted for in schedules and status reports, doesn’t work. It just adds overhead, and moves the finger-pointing into the meetings where schedules are discussed or reviewed. In some cases you can deal with it by making some kind of team work an explicit responsibility, with its own time allocation and performance metrics even if every single task isn’t tracked. Quality assurance and release engineering tasks started getting this treatment so long ago that they have evolved into their own separate disciplines; tool development and performance analysis are well along the same track. Failing that, just allocating some percentage of each individual’s time to “unspecified” team work, adjusting schedules and performance evaluations accordingly, also works and can be combined with similar measures such as Google’s “20% time” for personal projects.

Several jobs ago, we used to practice “management by beer” to deal with this. If you wanted someone to do something for you, you offered them a beer (or other beverage). The IOU was hardly ever called in, of course, because sooner or later the beer went full circle and everything tended to cancel out, but it was still useful. Without any kind of formal tracking, the mere fact of acknowledging people’s efforts on each other’s behalf seemed to make everyone feel better so the finger-pointing never got started. Try it. I prefer gummi bears/penguins/whales to beer, though.