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Business LibreTexts

1.10: Allocating and Managing Constrained Resources

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  • Jeffrey Russell, Wayne Pferdehirt, and John Nelson
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison

Limitless material resources are not only unavailable most of the time, they may actually be a hindrance. And remaining lean and mean can often be a blessing.

—Michael Gibbert, Martin Hoegl, and Liisa Välikangas ( In Praise of Resource Constraints 2007)


After reading this chapter, you will be able to

  • Discuss basic concepts related to resource management, including over-commitment and over-allocation
  • Explain some geometric-order resource optimization techniques, including resource leveling, resource smoothing, and the critical chain approach
  • Describe challenges related to resource allocation in Agile
  • Discuss ideas related to sustainability and the triple bottom line
  • Identify issues affecting resource management at the portfolio level
  • List some advantages of resources constraints
  • You have to have the right resources at the right time. This involves staying flexible and making changes as necessary, rather than hewing to a predefined structure that might not be useful as conditions change.
  • Constraints on resources are inevitable, but by combining geometric-order techniques such as resource leveling and resource smoothing with an adaptive, living order approach, you can prevent project crises.
  • Project managers have to look outside their projects to find the resources they need. Somehow, within their organizations, they have to secure the resources they need. Meanwhile, on the portfolio-level, executives have to manage resources to ensure that they are available for many projects over the long term.

10.1 Managing Resources in Living Order

The most detailed schedules and budgets in the world are useless if you don’t have the people, equipment, facilities, and other resources you need, when you need them. In reality, the schedule is only determined after the resources have been assigned. In other words, until you have assigned and committed resources, your project schedule and budget are not fully realized. They are based on assumptions, which are a huge source of uncertainty. This is especially true in the IT world, where productivity can vary so much from one person to another. You can’t really have a clear idea of how fast your team can work until you know who’s on the team.

Acquiring project resources usually involves looking outside the boundaries of the project itself to find what you need. In the early stages, that includes finding the right people for your project team. Inevitably, you will face restrictions on the resources available to you. And yet, to complete a project successfully, you have to figure out how to get the resources you need—people, office space, Internet bandwidth, computer, copper wire, shingles, 3-D modeling equipment, concrete, and so on—when you need them.

That’s why understanding the principles of resource allocation is so essential to successful project management. Most definitions of “resource allocation” describe it as something that takes place on the organization level, as in the following: “ Resource allocation is the process of assigning and managing assets in a manner that supports an organization’s strategic goals” (Rouse n.d.). On the project level, resource allocation still involves making choices that support the organization’s strategic goals, but you also have to factor in your project’s more specific goals. In all cases, resource allocation (or resource management as it is sometimes called) includes “managing tangible assets such as hardware to make the best use of softer assets such as human capital. Resource allocation involves balancing competing needs and priorities and determining the most effective course of action in order to maximize the effective use of limited resources and gain the best return on investment” (Rouse n.d.).

Resource management is about making sure you have the resources you need at the right time, but it’s also about avoiding stockpiling resources unnecessarily (and therefore wasting them) and about “making sure that people are assigned to tasks that will keep them busy and not have too much downtime” (Business Dictionary n.d.) .

The essence of resource allocation is resource loading , or the process of assigning resources (most often people) to each and every project activity. In resource loading, we look at the tasks involved in the project, and then, using past experience and some judgment, determine how much work (typically measured in person hours) to assign to each resource in order to achieve the desired schedule. In the early stages of a project, resource loading provides a quick check on resource demand and supply. Any indication that demand is tight for a particular resource should serve as a warning that you will have to carefully monitor that resource throughout the project. In any resource loading decision, you need to distinguish between fixed resources (which remain “unchanged as output increases”) and variable resources (which change “in tandem with output”) (Reference n.d.).

The Screwdriver Rule

Investing in resources you might need, but don’t necessarily need immediately, is similar to keeping screwdrivers of varying sizes available in your tool drawer at home. You would never want to have to go out and buy a screw driver just to complete a quick task like tightening the legs on a chair. Most people would agree that the cost of buying and storing a set of screw drivers is less than the inconvenience of not having them on hand when you need them. In the same vein, a project manager might make a similar value judgement about resource availability to ensure that the project as a whole progresses smoothly. But of course you don’t ever want to unnecessarily stockpile resources that could be used elsewhere in your organization.

The geometric order approach to resource allocation presumes a systematic process, in which you know well in advance which resources you’ll need at any one time and have a clear path to acquiring those resources. This is the ideal situation and is usually the result of years of experience that allow managers to foresee needs way down the road. For example, mature project management organizations know to hire staff in anticipation of upcoming project needs and provide developmental opportunities to challenge and retain their best employees. By contrast, less experienced project management organizations identify project teams on a “just in time” basis that can compromise a project from the beginning.

While having everything you want when you need it is the ideal, it’s rarely the norm in the permanent whitewater of the living order. In a changeable environment, resource allocation is all about adaptation. You might start by planning the necessary resources in a geometric way. However, altering circumstances could mean you need to revise your plan day-to-day. In other words, in living order, you need to actively manage the resources required for your project tasks. You can’t assume that because you’ve made a plan, every person and everything you need will show up on time, according to your plan.

For example, in manufacturing, when installing a new piece of automation, a company absolutely must have maintenance, manufacturing engineers, and control staff available to jump in when they are needed. The schedule might spell out detailed dates, but everyone still has to remain flexible because their piece of the work will affect the overall timeline. Adding to the complexity of the situation, the personnel working on your project may have to be available to staff the rest of the plant. They might suddenly need to postpone work on your automation project in order to work on a crisis affecting a particular customer order.

And keep in mind that from one project to the next, your control over day-to-day assignment of resources could vary considerably. In most situations, project managers need to coordinate, negotiating and contracting with others to get resources when they need them. What’s more, there’s often a time lag between identifying the need for a resource and getting it deployed. This is especially true for research-oriented tasks, in which resolving unknowns sets the pace of progress.

Getting Creative with Resource Management

Successful project managers aren’t afraid to get creative in their approach to resource management. An interesting example of resource control in highway construction requires contractors to rent lanes per day until they finish working on them. This method is described here: .

In some situations, you shouldn’t even assume that you know what resources you will need in the first place. It can be hard to accept this fact, even in organizations that have fully embraced living order. In their article “Managing Resources in an Uncertain World,” John Hagel, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison argue that even the most well-conceived pull plan—a plan informed by the best precepts of Lean—can be limited by the assumption that the planners know exactly what resources they need in the first place. To overcome this challenge, they argue for an even more flexible version of pull planning:

In a world of accelerating change, we no longer can be certain we know what to seek. What happens when we don’t even know that a product or person exists, yet that product or person is highly relevant to our needs of the moment? Lean manufacturing systems at least assume that we know what we need at any point in time…. Increasingly, we need pull platforms that can bring us relevant resources that we did not know existed but are useful to us. They must do this in a scalable fashion as well since the resources may be in a remote part of the world or developed by individuals who are just beginning to become visible with newly acquired skills. In other words, these pull platforms must offer serendipity as well as robust search capability. (Hagel III, Brown and Davison 2009)

Seeing the Big Picture

Resource allocation occurs within a broader organizational context, subject to pressures that go beyond an individual project. That means that getting and using the resources you need, when you need them, is rarely as simple as it might seem when spelled out in a project schedule. As discussed in Lesson 2, in a well-run organization, project selection is guided by the organization’s overall strategy. The same is true of resource allocation; decisions about what resources will be available to which projects are, ideally, made in alignment with the organizational strategy. For project managers, it’s important to keep this in mind. It might be better for you and your project to have access to a certain resource on a certain day, but that might not necessarily be the best option for the organization as a whole.

Other realities can affect your ability to gain access to and pay for a resource. In the case of a scarce piece of equipment, you might try to reserve it for more time than is strictly necessary, so you can use it when you need it. This allows you to purchase flexibility, but that flexibility might be more expensive than you can afford. However, if you let a critical resource go, you might not get it back when you need it, or you might need to pay a charge for reactivating the resource. In other situations, you may be forced to pay for more than you need. For example, in projects involving union labor, you might have to pay for a half-day of labor for someone to operate equipment that you actually only need for two hours. All of these factors affect the reality of getting a resource, how much it costs, and when it is available.

Another important factor affecting the allocation of resources is the often intense competition for resources within an organization. In an article describing how the pharmaceutical company SmithKline Beecham (SB) improved its resource-allocation process, Paul Sharpe and Tom Keelin acknowledge the realities of intra-organizational competitiveness:

How do you make good decisions in a high-risk, technically complex business when the information you need to make those decisions comes largely from the project champions who are competing against one another for resources? A critical company process can become politicized when strong-willed, charismatic project leaders beat out their less competitive colleagues for resources. That in turn leads to the cynical view that your project is as good as the performance you can put on at funding time…. One of the major weaknesses of most resource-allocation processes is that project advocates tend to take an all-or-nothing approach to budget requests. At SB, that meant that project leaders would develop a single plan of action and present it as the only viable approach. Project teams rarely took the time to consider meaningful alternatives—especially if they suspected that doing so might mean a cutback in funding. (1998)

The improved resource allocation process that Sharpe and Keelin developed was systematic and value-driven, but the key to their approach came down to one thing: better communication among project managers and other stakeholders. This, in turn, allowed them to trust each other, so they could turn their attention to the company’s overall strategic goals rather than skirmishing over available resources. Sharpe and Keelin found that “by tackling the soft issues around resource allocation, such as information quality, credibility, and trust, we had also addressed the hard ones: How much should we invest and where should we invest it?”

In other words, resource allocation is yet another area of project management in which good communication can help smooth the way to project success.

Over-Commitment, Over-Allocation, and Risk Management

Resource allocation is inextricably tied up with risk management. If you fail to secure the resources you need, when you need them, you risk delays, mounting costs, and even project failure. Two of the most common ways that a needed resource can suddenly become unavailable to your project are

  • over-commitment: A resource allocation error that occurs when a task takes longer than expected, tying up the resource longer than originally scheduled.
  • over-allocation: A resource allocation error that occurs when a resource is allocated to multiple projects with conflicting schedules, making it impossible for the resource to complete the assigned work on one or more of the projects as scheduled.

In an article for, Donna Fitzgerald explains the distinction:

An individual can theoretically be over-allocated to many projects; an individual can be overcommitted only to a specific body of work.

The reason for this distinction is that over-commitment and over-allocation really are two separate problems. If an individual is assigned a task and the work on that task turns out to be twice the effort originally estimated—and the project duration isn’t moved out—the individual is overcommitted. If a person is allocated to multiple projects, then it’s an issue of over-allocation. I believe that problems arise because of a failure to admit that a single person can’t be in two places at the same time. (Fitzgerald 2003)

Fitzgerald argues that over-commitment is a problem that a project manager can typically resolve within the confines of individual projects. Over-allocation, by contrast, is something that can only be fully solved “at the organizational level…by establishing clear project priorities and a clear process for mediating the inevitable conflict in priorities” (Fitzgerald 2003). The unfortunate fact is that if you face an organization-wide over-allocation problem, you may have no option but to deal with it as best you can. Successful project managers learn to ride the waves of over-allocation whitewater, making do with the resources made available to them:

In the final analysis, resource overallocation is a failure of prioritization, a failure of planning, and a failure to accept that reality always imposes constraints. The nimble project manager understands that things will always change and that even in the best of systems there will be times when multiple projects are competing for the same resource. The only way to really solve this problem is by eliminating unnecessary conflicts in the initial planning stages through prioritization and project timing and by establishing the discipline to make conscious decisions about which projects slip and which stay on track when Murphy’s Law comes into play. (Fitzgerald 2003)

But is there something individual project managers can do to prevent over-allocation from causing havoc with their projects? Fitzgerald suggests that you start by learning more about how resources are allocated in your organization. A good way to do this is to recruit “other project managers into a Community of Practice” as she explains in this helpful article: . Fitzgerald argues that such groups can go a long way towards resolving all sorts of project team rivalries, including rivalries involving resource allocation:

The key is to get a group of PMs together and to establish a planning committee that would work to keep PMs from stepping all over one another. Simply making the decision to avoid letting the situation reach the crisis point and to open up the communication channels will begin to reduce the probability that resources are mythically overallocated. (Fitzgerald 2003)

Fitzgerald also suggests applying risk management techniques to critical resources from the earliest days of project planning:

As a general practice, I begin every project by identifying my critical resources and developing a contingency plan for replacement or substitution of those resources in the event of an emergency…. By establishing nothing more than the most minimal practice of risk management, you can ensure that resource problems are brought to light early in the project life cycle rather than later when the solutions are more limited and more expensive. (Fitzgerald 2003)

10.2 Geometric Resource-Optimization Techniques

So far, we’ve focused on several ways living order can disrupt your best-laid resource allocation plans. But that’s not to say that, when thinking about resources, you should dispense with careful, geometric-order planning. Far from it. In the next two sections, we look at some helpful resource-optimization techniques.

Resource Leveling and Resource Smoothing

Two important resource allocation tools available to a project manager are resource leveling and resource smoothing. These techniques make use of slack (also called float) which, as you learned in Lesson 7, is the amount of time that a task can be delayed without causing a delay to subsequent tasks or the project’s completion date. Understanding the distinction between the resource leveling and resource smoothing can be tricky, so let’s start with basic definitions:

  • resource leveling: An “approach to project scheduling whereby task start and end dates are determined by the availability of internal and external resources…. Resource leveling will resolve over-allocations by moving task start and end dates, or extending task durations in order to suit resource availability” (ITtoolkit n.d.). Resource leveling may modify the critical path or extend the duration of the project, depending on the availability of critical resources, and the ability to accomplish required leveling using available slack/float.
  • resource smoothing: “ A scheduling calculation that involves utilizing float or increasing or decreasing the resources required for specific activities, such that any peaks and troughs of resource usage are smoothed out. This does not affect the overall duration” (Association for Project Management n.d.).

Because of the complexities involved, both resource leveling and resource smoothing are typically done using project management software such as Microsoft Project. A blog post for the Association for Project Management distinguishes between resource leveling and resource smoothing as follows:

Resource smoothing is used when the time constraint takes priority. The objective is to complete the work by the required date while avoiding peaks and troughs of resource demand. Resource leveling is used when limits on the availability of resources are paramount. It simply answers the question “With the resources available, when will the work be finished?” (Association for Project Management n.d.)

In resource leveling, the project manager moves resources around in the schedule in order to level off some of the peaks and valleys of resource requirements. Task start dates are modified as necessary to use slack wherever possible to reduce resource conflicts. If necessary, activity start dates are shifted further to eliminate resource constraints; these shifts beyond initial slack constraints extend the duration of the project. You can see some examples of resource leveling here: .

Even after judicious resource leveling, you may still find that demand for one or more resources exceeds existing constraints in order to meet a schedule requirement. For example, you might find that you simply don’t have enough experienced electricians on-staff to complete a task by a fixed milestone date. In that case, you will need to consider adding resources to the project—for example, perhaps by hiring some electricians from another firm. But remember that bringing on new resources may temporarily slow the project due to the time it takes for both the project team and the new resource to adjust. When facing insurmountable resource constraints, you might find that you simply have to extend the schedule or modify the project’s scope.

Note that resource leveling, as described here, is rarely appropriate in the world of software development projects. Unless the people on the project have experience that is relevant to the tasks to be accomplished and have worked on similar projects with well-defined scope, then resource leveling may not prove useful. However, resource leveling can be useful in software consulting firms that perform system upgrades for clients and have established a repeatable process for doing the upgrade.

Reducing Resource Use Through Schedule Compression: Yes and No

Managers often assume that the schedule compression techniques discussed in Lesson 7 can have the side benefit of reducing indirect costs for resources like maintenance personnel, administrative staff, or office space. This is true in some fields, making it a very useful option. But it doesn’t typically work in the IT world, as documented by Steve McConnell in his book Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules. He explains that focusing too much on schedules at the expense of other resource-intensive work such as planning and design will almost always result in a late project:

You can use the strongest schedule-oriented practices, but if you make the classic mistake of shortchanging product quality early in the project, you’ll waste time correcting defects when it’s most expensive to do so. Your project will be late. If you skip the development fundamental of creating a good design before you begin coding, your program can fall apart when the product concept changes partway through development, and your project will be late. And if you don’t manage risks, you can find out just before your release date that a key subcontractor is three months behind schedule. You’ll be late again. (1996, 9)

Critical Chain Approach

In Lesson 7 you learned about the critical path method of schedule management, which helps identify the minimum total time required to complete a project—that is, the critical path. This way of thinking about a project focuses on finding the right order for tasks within the schedule. By contrast, a related scheduling method, the critical chain method (CCM), focuses on the resources required to complete a project, adding “time buffers to account for limited resources” (Goodrich 2018). Critical chain management was first introduced by Eliyahu M. Goldratt in his 2002 book Critical Chain . To learn more about this important topic, start by reviewing this summary: . This helpful video explains the basic concepts related to the critical chain method: .

10.3 Estimating Resource Capacity in Agile

In theory, resource management in Agile should be simple. After all, in Agile, resources and time are usually fixed. The team has a fixed budget, a fixed number of programmers, and a fixed amount of time to create working software. The variable in all this is the software itself. Throughout the cycle of sprints—as the customer tries out new software, and requests alterations—the software features can change dramatically. When the budget is exhausted, the project ends. But because Agile developers create working software bit-by-bit, the customer is assured of having at least some usable features by that point.

So again, resource management in Agile should be simple— in theory. But in reality, the key resource in software development is the people who create the software. And as you learned in the discussion on teams in Lesson 5, where people are concerned, things rarely go as planned. Some programmers work faster than others, and individuals can vary tremendously in their output from one week to the next, especially when dealing with personal problems, like illness or family conflict. Robert Merrill, a Senior Business Analyst at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and an Agile coach, puts it like this:

Agile is more about people than computers. People are not interchangeable, they have good days and bad days. They get along or they don’t. Cognitive abilities vary tremendously. If you aren’t successful in helping teams gel and stay focused, you’re going to spend lots of extra money, or the project may blow up. You need to get the teams right. (Merrill 2017)

As Gareth Saunders explains in a thoughtful blog post on the topic, this is all complicated by the amount of “business as usual” tasks that developers typically have to fit into their schedules on top of their work on specific Agile projects. This includes tasks like “admin, team communications, support, mentoring, meetings, and consultancy—offering our input on projects managed by other teams” (Saunders 2015). As a result, as a project manager, Saunders struggles to answer the following questions:

  • How do we know how much time each team member has to work on projects?
  • When we’re planning the next sprint, how do we track how much work has been assigned to a team member, so that they have neither too little nor too much work? (Saunders 2015)

Again, in theory, this should not be difficult. If you have, for instance, “five developers, each with 6 hours available for work each day. That gives us 30 hours per day, and assuming 9 days of project work (with one full day set aside for retrospective and planning) then within each two-week sprint we should be able to dedicate 270 hours to development work” (Saunders 2015). In reality, however, business as usual tasks can eat up 40% of a programmer’s working week, with that percentage varying from week to week or month to month.

Difficulties in estimating a team member’s capacity for work on a project is something every project manager faces. But in Agile, estimating capacity can be especially difficult. As you learned in Lesson 5, in Agile, project managers (or Scrum masters) ideally exert minimal direct influence on day-to-day work, because teams are supposedly self-organizing—that is, free to manage their work as a group, and pull work when they are ready for it. This means Agile project managers need to take the long view on resource management by practicing good resource capacity management , which involves “planning your workforce and building a skill inventory in exact proportion to the demand you foresee. It lets you optimize productivity and as a concept perfectly complements the Agile methodology” (Gupta 2017).

Interested in learning more about managing resources in Agile? Start with these links:

  • You can read more about resource capacity management here: .
  • Gareth Saunders’ blog post, and the accompanying comments, walk you through some of the challenges of Agile resource management:

10.4 Resources and the Triple Bottom Line

When making decisions about resources, you may naturally focus on what will allow your team to finish a project as quickly and efficiently as possible. As a result, you might be tempted to make decisions that use more fuel than is strictly necessary, exploit cheap labor, or pollute a local lake. But that approach fails to take into account the longer view on personal and organizational responsibility that lies at the core of the sustainability movement.

John Elkington introduced the term triple bottom line (TBL) as a way to broaden corporate thinking about the cost of doing business to include social and environmental responsibilities. Rather than focusing solely on profit and loss, Elkington argued that organizations should pay attention to three separate bottom lines:

One is the traditional measure of corporate profit—the “bottom line” of the profit and loss account. The second is the bottom line of a company’s “people account”—a measure in some shape or form of how socially responsible an organization has been throughout its operations. The third is the bottom line of the company’s “planet” account—a measure of how environmentally responsible it has been. The triple bottom line (TBL) thus consists of three Ps: profit, people, and planet. It aims to measure the financial, social, and environmental performance of the corporation over a period of time. Only a company that produces a TBL is taking account of the full cost involved in doing business. (The Economist 2009)

More and more, organizations are incorporating sustainability concerns into their long-term strategies, in part because their customers demand it, and in part because the sustainable choice often turns out to be the profitable choice. If you are lucky enough to work for an organization that is fully invested in its triple bottom line, you will be encouraged to make resource allocation decisions that reflect sustainability concerns. If your organization isn’t there yet, consider staking out a position as an agent of change, educating colleagues about the benefits of the triple bottom line. You can start by educating yourself. The following resources are a good first step:

  • Cannibals with Forks: The Triple Bottom Line of 21st Century Business: In this 1999 book, John Elkington first introduced the idea of the triple bottom line. (Note that it was originally titled Cannibals with Food Rakes, and often shows up with that title in web searches.)
  • This brief introduction summarizes the basic issues related to the triple bottom line: .

10.5 From the Trenches: John Nelson on Resources at the Portfolio Level

As an executive concerned with the well-being of an entire organization, John Nelson has to look at resource management on a portfolio level. Whereas individual project managers naturally focus on short-term resource availability for their projects, an executive’s goal is ensuring that resources are available for many projects over the long term. In a recent lecture, he offered some thoughts on managing resources at the portfolio level:

Whether you’re deploying capital resources, outside resources, or your own internal staffing resources, it’s almost axiomatic that you will face resource constraints in living order. When considering how a particular project fits within a larger portfolio, you need to keep in mind the organization’s resource elasticity, and the organization’s ratio of percentage of creative personnel.

Let’s start with resource elasticity. Organizations can be whipsawed by projects that are so large they consume a disproportionate amount of the organization’s resources. If a project like that ends abruptly, for an unexpected reason, the organization will struggle to get project resources redeployed. To avoid this, it’s a good idea to make sure no project exceeds one-third (or in some cases one-fourth) of the organization’s total capacity.

Now let’s consider the critical ratio of creative people to people who excel at execution. Some projects require a lot of creativity and thinking. Some just require execution. If you have a portfolio of highly creative assignments, but a resource base that’s largely execution-oriented, you’re going to struggle. The opposite is also true: if you have lots of execution-oriented projects with only highly creative people on staff, you might complete the project successfully, but you’ll probably burn through resources faster than you want, because creative people aren’t as efficient and effective at execution. It almost goes without saying, though, that you do have to have creative people in your organization. In living order, it’s rare that I come across a project that doesn’t involve any creative people. My rule of thumb is to have about 30% of my staff to be highly creative. This has worked well for me, although sometimes 40% or even 50% is best.

You have to keep these kinds of concerns in mind as you look at projects in portfolios, at the organizational level, to make sure that over the long term you have a reasonable chance of meeting the value proposition, meeting the customer’s expectations, and maintaining the health of your organization. (Nelson 2017)

10.6 Externalities and Looking to the Future

A project manager with a serious appreciation for living order understands that external factors may fluctuate during project execution, making previously widely available resources impossible to obtain. For example, there may be a run on certain materials, or a certain type of expertise might suddenly be consumed by an emergency somewhere in the world. Any development like this can force you to rethink your original expectations. You need to be prepared to adapt your budget, scope, and schedule to the realities that evolve during project execution.

Keep in mind that resources can become suddenly scarce. For example, right now materials engineers are a hot commodity, because more engineers are retiring than entering this field. Compounding the problem, new designs and manufacturing techniques have expanded the need for materials engineers. A 2018 check of turned up over 47,000 openings for materials engineers. As you might expect, new engineering students are responding to the call. At the UW-Madison, enrollment in this area of engineering has grown dramatically. But it will still be a while until there is enough materials expertise to go around.

And keep in mind that a constraint on the availability of resources is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to an organization or to an individual project. In fact, the origins of Lean and the Toyota Production System can be traced back to resource constraints in Japan at the end of World War II. In an article for MIT Sloan Management Review , Michael Gibbert, Martin Hoegl, and Liisa Välikangas argue that abundant resources can sometimes stifle innovation:

Resource constraints fuel innovation in two ways. In a 1990 article in Strategic Management Journal , J.A. Starr and I.C. MacMillan suggested that resource constraints can lead to “entrepreneurial” approaches to securing the missing funds or the required personnel. For example, the Game Changer innovation program of Royal Dutch Shell Plc long operated on the shoulders of its social network, which allowed innovators to find technically qualified peers willing to contribute to their efforts on a complimentary basis. In other words, individuals innovate despite the lack of funding by using social rather than purely economic strategies. Thus tin-cupping, horse trading, boot strapping, and currying personal favors partly or wholly substitute for economic transactions in which non-entrepreneurial innovators (or those less socially connected) would pay the full price.

Such efforts speak for “resource parsimony”—deploying the fewest resources necessary to achieve the desired results. For instance, new product development teams might use testing equipment on weekends, when it is readily available and free. Likewise, team members might know engineers or other professionals—say, from supplier firms involved in past projects—who would be glad to give informal design reviews in anticipation of future remunerative work.

Resource constraints can also fuel innovative team performance directly. In the spirit of the proverb “necessity is the mother of invention,” teams may produce better results because of resource constraints. Cognitive psychology provides experimental support for the “less is more” hypothesis. For example, scholars in creative cognition find in laboratory tests that subjects are most innovative when given fewer rather than more resources for solving a problem.

The reason seems to be that the human mind is most productive when restricted. Limited—or better focused—by specific rules and constraints, we are more likely to recognize an unexpected idea. (Gibbert, Hoegl and Välikangas 2007)

Gibbert et al. argue that managers with access to all the resources they could possibly want tend to fall into the trap of throwing money at problems, rather than sitting down to think of effective solutions to the kinds of problems that arise in the permanent whitewater of the modern business world. Then, when projects fail, “rationalizations often start with excuses such as ‘We ran out of money’ or ‘If only we had more time.’ In such cases, the resource-driven mindset may well have backfired. Resource adequacy is in the eye of the beholder, and if a team has the perception of inadequate resources, it may easily be stifled.”

Gibbert et al. describe several projects in which resource constraints turned out to be a blessing, not a curse. For example:

In the post–World War II era, several American teams under General Electric Co., and several German teams under Bayerische Motoren Werke AG were competing against each other in a race to resolve the jet engine performance dilemma. The stakes were high, given that the Cold War had started and the West was eager to come up with reliable jet technology before the Soviet Union did. The German team eventually won by proposing a radical departure from the status quo, an innovation that is in fact is still used today. It developed a “bypass” technology in which the rotor blades and other engine parts most exposed to high temperatures were hollowed out so that air could flow through them, thereby cooling them off.

Whence this idea? The American team had a virtual blank check to buy whatever costly raw materials it needed to create the most heat resistant alloys (the Cold War jet propulsion development program cost the U.S. government nearly twice as much as the Manhattan Project). The German team, by contrast, was forced to rely on cheaper alloys, as it had significantly less funding at its disposal and simply couldn’t afford the more expensive metals. (Gibbert, Hoegl and Välikangas 2007)

Don’t underestimate the management hours required to keep track of a high number of resources. For example, an experienced manager of engine-related projects reported that more than 50 core team members was too many for one project manager to keep track of. With over 50 team members, the burden of coordination and communication often outweighed the benefit of extra resources.

Resource Management and Proactive Resilience

In their book Becoming a Project Leader, Alexander Laufer, Terry Little, Jeffrey Russell, and Bruce Maas discuss the benefits of proactive resilience —taking timely action to prevent a crisis, often by introducing a change that upends the usual way of doing things. In living order, where resource availability is never a given, proactive resilience is an essential component of good resource management.

As an example of proactive resilience in action, Laufer et al. describe the work of Don Margolies, a project manager in charge of NASA’s Advanced Composition Explorer, a robotic spacecraft launched into orbit in 1997 to collect data on solar storms. At one point, facing a $22 million cost overrun related to the development of nine scientific instruments, his dramatic intervention ultimately saved the project:

Don concluded that unless he embarked on an uncommon and quite radical change, the project would continue down the same bumpy road, with the likely result that cost, and time objectives would not be met. To prevent this, he made an extremely unpopular decision: He stopped the development of the instruments, calling on every science team to revisit its original technical requirements to see how they could be reduced. In every area—instruments, spacecraft, ground operation, integration and testing—scientists had to go back and ask basic questions, such as “How much can I save if I take out a circuit board?” and “How much performance will I lose if I do take it out?”

At the same time, Don negotiated a new agreement with NASA headquarters to secure stable funding, detached from the budget of the other six projects affiliated with the Explorers program. To seal the agreement, he assured them that by reducing his project’s scope, it would not go over budget. With the reduced technical scope and the stable budget, the ACE project gradually overcame both its technical and organizational problems. Eventually, it was completed below budget, and the spacecraft has provided excellent scientific data ever since. (Laufer, et al. 2018, 57)

Resource parsimony is not the answer to every resource allocation problem, but it can definitely stimulate new and effective approaches that might otherwise go undiscovered. In the same way, the many living order challenges facing today’s organizations can encourage managers to develop new ways to manage resources.

~Practical Tips

  • Similar does not mean equal: Similar resources are not necessarily interchangeable. For instance, two people might work under the title “Senior Designer.” However, because of education and experience, one of them might be far more suited to your project. The problem is, computerized resource allocation methods often fail to distinguish differences among similar resources. Whenever possible, take the time to evaluate the people and other resources that are key to your project to ensure that you have allocated the appropriate resources. Plan projects based on an average capability resource. That way, across all projects, the estimates should even out to be about right. If it takes a good designer three days to design a part and a less capable designer five days, you should plan on four days for designer time.
  • Economic downturns and upturns can affect resource availability: Economic conditions influence the cost and availability of high-demand resources. You might need some expertise that changing economic conditions or changing technical requirements make it difficult for you to get when you need it. The same may be true in reverse. Sometimes, because the economy is in a downturn, certain resources become more available. These factors may influence the cost and availability of resources needed for your project.
  • Share resource allocation decisions to gain buy-in: If possible, try to make resource allocation decisions available to your entire organization. This will encourage people outside your specific project to buy in to your project’s goals. It can also help minimize the kind of resentment that arises when project managers are competing for scarce resources. This phenomenon is explained in the blog post “5 Ways Top Project Managers Allocate Their Resources”:

Resourcing isn’t just for your team—it applies to the rest of your company too. Think beyond project life cycle planning; when allocations are visible to everyone, the entire agency can see how pieces fit together and where their “quick tweaks” or internal projects align with the grand scheme of things. This can significantly cut down on emails, facilitate conversations that would otherwise require rounds of meetings, and serve as a precursor to monthly budget reviews or executive presentations. A resourcing system visible to key parties and departments, and sortable by tasks and skills, can help tremendously while preparing budgets and schedules. Top project managers make sure the bigger picture is always in perspective. (MICA 2014)

  • Keep marginal costs in mind: Economies of scale prevail in resource management, but only to a certain point. You need to keep in mind the marginal cost of a resource. For example, the hourly cost of labor may be fixed to a point, but once you move from regular hours to overtime hours, the marginal cost increases significantly. So always look at the marginal cost of existing personnel or equipment hours, versus the new marginal cost of adding personnel or equipment hours.
  • Think strategically about who should control a particular resource : As you have more control over a resource at the project level, you typically have more cost for carrying that resource through the project. That does give you more flexibility, but what is best at the project level may not be best for the overall organization. It’s possible that having a resource controlled at the organizational level may give greater flexibility for the organization overall.
  • Understand minimum units of allocation : It’s rarely helpful to allocate 3.8 people to a task. Instead, it is almost always more realistic to allocate 4 people full-time. Similarly, most facilities can only be realistically hired by the day/week and not by the hour/minute. Understanding minimum units of allocation is important in realistic planning.
  • Plan for shared resources: In an ideal world, all resources are dedicated solely to your project. However, it is more common to have shared resources. If you are working on a project with shared resources, you’ll need to schedule your use of those resources even more carefully than if they were dedicated solely to your project.
  • Be prepared to wait for resources: Some equipment or facilities have to be booked in advance. Once you book them, you may not have flexibility to change your dates. This is a good opportunity to practice contingency planning: what other work can continue while you wait for a resource to become available?
  • Beware personnel turnover: In long-running projects, highly skilled people retiring or moving on to new jobs can be a major issue, and something you should beware of as you allocate human resources to your project. Any transition of key leadership can have an impact on a project’s progress and directly affect its overall success. Do all you can to proactively manage transitions throughout a project. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change , by William Bridges, is a classic resource on managing change in the workplace. It includes practical assessments that the readers can use to improve their own transition management skills.
  • Allocate resources by name when necessary: If a specific resource—such as a particular test cell or person—is essential to project success, then take care to allocate that resource on a named basis, rather than as a general category of resource—for example, “Anita Gomez,” rather than “Designer.” However, you should avoid this specificity in all but the most critical cases, as it reduces flexibility and hinders developmental opportunities (increasing general bench strength).
  • Do all you can to prevent burnout : Be careful of overextending the people on your team. Stretching to the point of strain can cause unnecessary turnover, with no extra hours available for pitching in at crunch times. A good rule of thumb is to allocate a person 85%; this leaves time for vacation, development, and company projects.
  • Resource management is about making sure you have the resources you need at the right time, but it’s also about avoiding stockpiling resources unnecessarily (and therefore wasting them). The most detailed schedules and budgets in the world are useless if you don’t have the people, equipment, facilities, and other resources you need, when you need them. Until you have assigned and committed resources, you don’t have a project schedule and your budget has no real meaning.
  • The essence of resource allocation is resource loading, or the process of assigning resources (most often people) to each and every project activity. While having everything you want when you need it is the ideal, it’s rarely the norm in the permanent whitewater of living order. In a changeable environment, resource allocation is all about adaptation and seeing the big picture.
  • Resource allocation is inextricably tied up with risk management. If you fail to secure the resources you need when you need them, you risk delays, mounting costs, and even project failure. Two of the most common ways that a needed resource can suddenly become unavailable to your project are over-commitment (which occurs when a task takes longer than expected, typing up a resource longer than expected) and over-allocation (which occurs when a resource is allocated to multiple projects with conflicting schedules).
  • For resource allocation, two important geometric-order tools are resource leveling and resource smoothing. Another helpful option is a scheduling method known as the critical chain method (CCM), which focuses on the resources required to complete a project.
  • In Agile, where time and money are typically fixed, managing resources is theoretically a simple matter. However, the self-organizing nature of Agile teams presents special resource allocation challenges which can be overcome through resource capacity management.
  • John Elkington introduced the term triple bottom line (TBL) as a way to broaden corporate thinking about the cost of doing business to include social and environmental responsibilities. Elkington argued that rather than focusing solely on profit and loss, organizations should pay attention to three separate bottom lines: profit, people, and the health of the planet.
  • Whereas individual project managers naturally focus on short-term resource availability for their projects, an executive’s goal is ensuring that resources are available for many projects over the long term. When looking at resources from the portfolio level, try to make sure no project exceeds one-third to one-fourth of the organization’s total capacity. Also keep in mind that some projects require a healthy contingent of highly creative people, but too many creative people on a project can hamper execution. A good rule of thumb is to have about 30% of staff be highly creative.
  • You need to be prepared to adapt your budget, scope, and schedule to the externalities that evolve during project execution. And keep in mind that a constraint on the availability of resources is not necessarily the worst thing that can happen to an organization or to an individual project. You can forestall crises related to resources by practicing proactive resilience—that is, by taking timely action to prevent a crisis, often by introducing a change that upends the usual way of doing things. In living order, where resource availability is never a given, proactive resilience is an essential component of good resource management.
  • fixed resource —A resource that “remains unchanged as output increases” (Reference n.d.).
  • over-allocation —A resource allocation error that occurs when more work is assigned to a resource than can be completed within a particular time period, given that resource’s availability.
  • over-commitment —A resource allocation error that occurs when a task takes longer than expected, tying up the resource longer than originally scheduled.
  • proactive resilience —Taking timely action to prevent a crisis, often by introducing a change that upends the usual way of doing things at an organization (Laufer, et al. 2018, 56).
  • resource allocation —The “process of assigning and managing assets in a manner that supports an organization’s strategic goals” (Rouse n.d.). On the project level, resource allocation still involves making choices that support the organization’s strategic goals, but you also have to factor in your project’s more specific goals.
  • resource capacity management —The practice of “planning your workforce and building a skill inventory in exact proportion to the demand you foresee. It lets you optimize productivity and as a concept perfectly complements the Agile methodology” (Gupta 2017).
  • resource leveling— An approach to project scheduling that aims to avoid over-allocation of resources by setting start and end dates according to the “availability of internal and external resources” (ITtoolkit n.d.).
  • resource management— See resource allocation.
  • resource parsimony— “Deploying the fewest resources necessary to achieve the desired results” (Gibbert, Hoegl and Välikangas 2007).
  • resource smoothing—“ A scheduling calculation that involves utilizing float or increasing or decreasing the resources required for specific activities, such that any peaks and troughs of resource usage are smoothed out. This does not affect the overall duration” (Association for Project Management n.d.) .
  • triple bottom line (TBL)— Term introduced by John Elkington as a way to broaden corporate thinking about the cost of doing business to include social and environmental responsibilities. He argued that rather than focusing solely on profit and loss, organizations should pay attention to three separate bottom lines: profit, people, and the planet. “It aims to measure the financial, social and environmental performance of the corporation over a period of time. Only a company that produces a TBL is taking account of the full cost involved in doing business” (The Economist 2009).
  • variable resource —A resource that changes “in tandem with output” (Reference n.d.).


Association for Project Management. n.d. “Difference Between “Resource Smoothing” and “Resource Leveling”.” Accessed July 15, 2018. .

Business Dictionary. n.d. “Resource Management.” Business Dictionary. Accessed July 15, 2018. .

Fitzgerald, Donna. 2003. “The Keys to Resource Allocation.” Tech Republic , April 21. .

Gibbert, Michael, Martin Hoegl, and Liisa Välikangas. 2007. “In Praise of Resource Constraints.” MIT Sloan Management Review (Spring). .

Goodrich, Belinda. 2018. “Critical Path vs Critical Chain.” PM Learning Solutions. PM Learning Solutions. .

Gupta, Aakash. 2017. “Resource Capacity Planning For Agile Teams.” PM. September 19. .

Hagel III, John, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison. 2009. “Managing Resources in an Uncertain World.” Harvard Business Review. .

ITtoolkit. n.d. “How to Use Resource Leveling for Project Planning and Scheduling.” IT Toolkit. Right Track Associates, Inc. Accessed July 15, 2018. .

Laufer, Alexander, Terry Little, Jeffrey Russell, and Bruce Maas. 2018. Becoming a Project Leader: Blending Planning, Agility, Resilience, and Collaboration to Deliver Successful Projects. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

McConnell, Steve. 1996. Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press.

Merrill, Robert, interview by Ann Shaffer. 2017. Senior Business Analyst, University of Wisconsin-Madison (October 2).

MICA. 2014. “5 Ways Top Project Managers Allocate Their Resources.” ResourceGuru Blog. December 11. .

Nelson, John. 2017. “Strategies for Ensuring Critical Resouces are Available When Needed.” Lecture for EPD612: Technical Project Management, University of Wisconsin-Madison,. November 8.

Reference. n.d. “What is a fixed resource and a variable resource?” IAC Publishing, LLC. Accessed July 15, 2018. .

Rouse, Margaret. n.d. “Definition: resource allocation.” TechTarget. Accessed July 15, 2018. .

Saunders, Gareth. 2015. “The challenges of resource management in our Agile team.” Digital Communciations. November 9. .

Sharpe, Paul, and Tom Keelin. 1998. “How SmithKline Beecham Makes Better Resource-Allocation Decisions.” Harvard Business Review. .

The Economist. 2009. “Triple bottom line.” The Economist , November 17. .

6.4 Compare and Contrast Traditional and Activity-Based Costing Systems

Calculating an accurate manufacturing cost for each product is a vital piece of information for a company’s decision-making. For example, knowing the cost to produce a unit of product affects not only how a business budgets to manufacture that product, but it is often the starting point in determining the sales price.

An important component in determining the total production costs of a product or job is the proper allocation of overhead. For some companies, the often less-complicated traditional method does an excellent job of allocating overhead. However, for many products, the allocation of overhead is a more complex issue, and an activity-based costing (ABC) system is more appropriate.

Another factor to consider in determining which of the two major overhead allocation methods to use is the cost associated with collecting and analyzing information. When making their decision regarding which method to use, the company must consider these costs, both in time and money. Table 6.6 compares overhead in the two systems. In many cases, the ABC method is more expensive in terms of time and other costs.

The difference between the traditional method (using one cost driver) and the ABC method (using multiple cost drivers) is more complex than simply the number of cost drivers. When direct labor is a large portion of the product cost, the overhead costs tend to be consistently driven by one cost driver, which is typically direct labor or machine hours; the traditional method appropriately allocates those costs. When technology is a large portion of the product cost, the overhead costs tend to be driven by multiple drivers, so using multiple cost drivers in the ABC method allows for a more precise allocation of overhead.

As shown with Musicality’s products, not only are there different costs for each product when comparing traditional allocation with an activity-based costing, but ABC showed that the Solo product creates a loss for the company. Activity-based costing is a more accurate method, because it assigns overhead based on the activities that drive the overhead costs. It can be concluded, then, that the cost and subsequent gross loss for each unit’s sales provide a more accurate picture than the overall cost and gross profit under the traditional method. The image below compares the cost per unit using the different cost systems and shows how different the costs can be depending on the method used.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Traditional Method of Calculating Overhead

The traditional allocation system assigns manufacturing overhead based on a single cost driver, such as direct labor hours, direct labor dollars, or machine hours, and is optimal when there is a relationship between the activity base and overhead. This most often occurs when direct labor is a large part of the product cost. The theory supporting the single cost driver is that the cost driver selected increases as overhead increases, and further analysis is more costly than it is valuable. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. These are advantages of the traditional method:

  • All manufacturing costs are classified as material, labor, or overhead and assigned to products regardless of whether they drive or are driven by production.
  • All manufacturing costs are considered to be part of the product cost, whereas nonmanufacturing costs are not considered to be production costs and are not assigned to products, regardless of whether the costs are based on the products. For example, the machines used to receive and process customer orders are necessary because product orders must be taken, but their costs are not allocated to particular products.
  • There is only one overhead cost pool and a single measure of activity, such as direct labor hours, which makes the traditional method simple and less costly to maintain. The predetermined overhead rate is based on estimated costs at the budgeted level of activity. Therefore, the overhead rate is consistent across products, but overhead may be over- or underapplied.

Disadvantages of the traditional method include:

  • The use of the single cost driver does not allocate overhead as accurately as using multiple cost drivers.
  • The use of the single cost driver may overallocate overhead to one product and underallocate overhead to another product, resulting in erroneous total costs and potentially setting an incorrect sales price.
  • Traditional allocation assigns costs as period or product costs, and all product costs are included in the cost of inventory, which makes this method acceptable for generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

Think It Through

Abc method and financial statements.

There are pros and cons to both the traditional and the ABC system. One advantage of the ABC system is that it provides more accurate information on the costs to manufacture products, but it does not show up on the financial statements. Explain how this costing information has value if it does not appear on the financial statements.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Creating an Activity-Based Costing System for Allocating Overhead

While ABC systems more accurately allocate the costs based on the various resources used to make the product, they cost more to use and, therefore, are not always the best method. Management needs to consider each system and how it will work within its own organization. Some advantages of activity-based costing include:

  • There are multiple overhead cost pools, and each has its own unique measure of activity. This provides more accurate rates for applying overhead, but it takes more time to implement and results in a higher cost.
  • The allocation bases (i.e., measures of activity) often differ from those used in traditional allocation. Multiple cost pools allow management to group costs being influenced by similar drivers and to consider cost drivers beyond the typical labor or machine hour. This results in a more accurate overhead application rate.
  • The activity rates may consider the level of activity at capacity instead of the budgeted level of activity.
  • Both nonmanufacturing costs and manufacturing costs may be assigned to products. The main rationale in assigning costs is the relationship between the cost and the product. If the cost increases as the volume of the product increases, it is considered part of overhead.

There are disadvantages to using ABC costing that management needs to consider when determining which method to use. Those disadvantages include:

  • Some manufacturing costs may be excluded from product costs. For example, the cost to heat the factory may be excluded as a product cost because, while it is necessary for production, it does not fit into one of the activity-driven cost pools.
  • It is more expensive, as there is a cost to collect and analyze cost driver information as well as to allocate overhead on the basis of multiple cost drivers.
  • An ABC system takes much more to implement and operate, as information on cost drivers must be collected in an objective manner.

The advantages and disadvantages of both methods are as previously listed, but what is the practical impact on the product cost? There are several items to consider at the product costs level:

  • Adopting an ABC overhead allocation system can allow a company to shift manufacturing overhead costs between products based on their volume.
  • Using an ABC method to better assign unit-level, batch-level, product-level, and factory-level costs can increase the per-unit costs of the low-volume products and decrease the per-unit costs of the high-volume products.
  • The effects are not symmetrical; there is usually a larger change in the per-unit costs of the low-volume products.
  • The cost of the products may include some period costs but not some of the product costs, so it is not considered GAAP compliant. The information is supplemental and very helpful to management, but the company still needs to compute the product’s cost under the traditional method for financial reporting.

Link to Learning

Changing from the traditional allocation method to ABC costing is not as simple as having management dictate that employees follow the new system. There are often challenges that begin with convincing employees that it will provide benefits and that they should buy into the new system. See this 1995 article, Tapping the Full Potential of ABC , illustrating some of Chrysler ’s challenges to learn more.

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How agile teams make self-assignment work: a grounded theory study

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  • Published: 04 September 2020
  • Volume 25 , pages 4962–5005, ( 2020 )

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  • Zainab Masood 1 ,
  • Rashina Hoda 2 &
  • Kelly Blincoe 1  

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Self-assignment, a self-directed method of task allocation in which teams and individuals assign and choose work for themselves, is considered one of the hallmark practices of empowered, self-organizing agile teams. Despite all the benefits it promises, agile software teams do not practice it as regularly as other agile practices such as iteration planning and daily stand-ups, indicating that it is likely not an easy and straighforward practice. There has been very little empirical research on self-assignment. This Grounded Theory study explores how self-assignment works in agile projects. We collected data through interviews with 42 participants representing 28 agile teams from 23 software companies and supplemented these interviews with observations. Based on rigorous application of Grounded Theory analysis procedures such as open, axial, and selective coding, we present a comprehensive grounded theory of making self-assignment work that explains the (a) context and (b) causal conditions that give rise to the need for self-assignment, (c) a set of facilitating conditions that mediate how self-assignment may be enabled, (d) a set of constraining conditions that mediate how self-assignment may be constrained and which are overcome by a set of (e) strategies applied by agile teams, which in turn result in (f) a set of consequences, all in an attempt to make the central phenomenon, self-assignment, work. The findings of this study will help agile practitioners and companies understand different aspects of self-assignment and practice it with confidence regularly as a valuable practice. Additionally, it will help teams already practicing self-assignment to apply strategies to overcome the challenges they face on an everyday basis.

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1 Introduction

The success of any software project depends heavily on the execution of the related management activities (Pinto and Slevin 1988 ). These activities primarily include organizing the software teams, allocating tasks, and monitoring time, budget, and managing resources (Boehm 1991 ; Jurison 1999 ) and carried out differently depending on the project management approach followed. In traditional software development, a project manager plays a key role in task allocation (Guide 2001 ; Nerur et al. 2005 ; Stylianou and Andreou 2014 ). The duties of a project manager include planning, assigning, and tracking the work assigned to the project teams. Work is typically allocated keeping in mind the knowledge, skills, expertise, experience, proficiency and technical competence of the team members (Acuna et al. 2006 ).

In contrast to the traditional development processes, agile software development offers a different approach towards managing the software development cycle particularly task allocation. Instead of the manger assigning the tasks, the team members pick tasks for themselves through self-assignment . This concept of self-assignment is unique to agile software development and emerges from the two principles in the agile manifesto i.e. ‘ The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams’, ‘Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done’ (Beck et al. 2001 ). Even though self-assignment is not directly specified by these principles, but they build the motivation and highlight the significance to study self-assignment.

In theory, agile methods, particularly the Scrum methodology, encourage self-assignment for the allocation of tasks among team members (Hoda et al. 2012 ; Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ). Self-directed task allocation or self-assignment is also considered a fundamental characteristic of self-organized teams (Vidgen and Wang 2009 ; Deemer et al. 2012 ; Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ; Strode 2016 ; Hoda and Noble 2017 ). Typically, agile methods like XP, Scrum, and Kanban encourage team members to assign tasks or user stories to themselves (Schwaber and Sutherland 2011 ; Deemer et al. 2012 ; Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ). The different agile methods refer to this notion through different terminologies such as self-assigning , signing up and pulling (Beck 2005 ; Lee 2010 ; Deemer et al. 2012 ). We refer to it as self-assignment in this study. Unlike agile practices that have been well-studied such as pair programming (Williams et al. 2000 ), daily stand-ups (Stray et al. 2016 ), and retrospectives (Andriyani et al. 2017 ), it is unclear how self-assignment works in agile projects making it a promising area to study.

In practice, the transition from the manager-led allocation to self-assignment is easier said than done. This transition may not happen in one day due to multiple reasons. The manager may not trust teams and individuals (Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ; Stray et al. 2018 ) and resist adopting new ways of working and delegates tasks. The team members may not be comfortable to self-assign tasks themselves due to lack of confidence. Some members may always pick familiar tasks, and others may prefer self-assigning exciting tasks (Vidgen and Wang 2009 ; Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ; Strode 2016 ; Masood et al. 2017b ). The team members may self-assign low priority desirable tasks ignoring the high priority ones (Masood et al. 2017b ). This indicates that self-assignment can be challenging to practice. The related research does not cover the various aspects of self-assignment in-depth such as comparing the benefits of practicing self-assignment to manager-led allocation, challenges of practicing self-assignment. Additionally, limited information on the strategies agile practitioners follow to overcome the challenges of self-assignment increases the gap in the current research. Therefore, there is a need to investigate how self-assignment works in agile teams to answer several open questions such as: What leads to practicing self-assignment? What facilitates self-assignment in agile teams? What constrains self-assignment in agile teams? How do agile practitioners overcome the constraining conditions?

This research is part of a broader study which aims to cover various aspects of self-assignment in multiple phases. As part of our future work, we plan to study various aspects of self-assignment in multiple phases. Some of these aspects are understanding the self-assignment process, motivational factors to self-assigning tasks, role of manager in self-assignment. The focus of this paper is to investigate what leads to practicing self-assignment, conditions influencing the self-assignment process, strategies to overcome the constraining conditions, and any consequences of adopted strategies. It is to be noted that other aspects such as the self-assignment process which includes how and when self-assignment is practiced in agile teams, in what form teams and individual self-assign tasks, and factors individuals keep into account while self-assigning work items are part of the complete doctoral study on self-assignment. Some of the data from phase1 of this study has been published (Masood et al. 2017a ; Masood et al. 2017b ) and reported as preliminary research on self-assignment in related works in this paper (in Section 2 and 5.1 ).

This study involved 42 participants representing 28 agile teams from 23 software companies based in New Zealand, India, and Pakistan. We collected data in two phases through pre-interview questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, and observations of agile practices such as daily stand-ups, iteration planning meetings, and self-assignment during task breakdown sessions. As a result of applying data analysis procedures, we present our grounded theory of making self-assignment work that describes what leads to and facilitates self-assignment, strategies used by the agile teams to make self-assignment work despite constraining conditions, details of the phenomenon of making self-assignment work, along with causal conditions, context, intervening conditions, strategies, and consequences. Additionally, we provided a list of practical implications and recommendations for agile teams, scrum masters and managers practicing self-assignment or teams that are transitioning into self-assignment.

The main contributions of this study are that it illustrates in-depth theoretical knowledge of self-assignment as a task allocation practice in agile teams. Future researchers can refer to this study for understanding the different aspects of self-assignment. Secondly, the practical strategies and recommendations presented in this study will contribute to the software industry by helping managers and agile teams overcome the hurdles and challenges faced in practicing self-assignment.

The remainder of the paper is structured as follows. Section 2 describes related works, section 3 summarizes the research method, sections 4 presents the findings of this research and Section 5 discusses the findings and compares with related work with recommendations for agile community and future researchers. Section 6 concludes the paper.

2 Related Works

Software project management comprises of a set of activities which include but are not limited to project planning, scope definition, cost estimation and risk management (Boehm 1991 ; Jurison 1999 ). In the conventional process of software development, the activities for project planning such as project schedule, resource and task allocation are taken care of by the project manager (Nerur et al. 2005 ; Stylianou and Andreou 2014 ). Resource and task allocation are considered important activities in the project planning phase irrespective of what methodology is used in software development. The project manager is considered to be a single point of contact with the sole responsibility of taking the task allocation decisions and managing the project scope and team (Stylianou and Andreou 2014 ). The project manager role is both critical and challenging as the competence of the project manager and how well they plan and execute these activities significantly contributes to the success of the project. In fact, the managers’ decisions on allocating developers and teams to project tasks and scheduling developers and teams are considered one of the key indicators of success of a software project (Stylianou and Andreou 2014 ).

With the advent of agile software development more than two decades ago, task allocation is no longer the lone responsibility of a manager (Nerur et al. 2005 ); rather, it is meant to be shared within an empowered development team. Agile introduced light-touch management (Augustine et al. 2005 ) giving autonomy, empowerment and flexibility to development teams and valuing customers through engagements without forfeiting governance (Beck et al. 2001 ; Augustine 2005 ; Carroll and Morris 2015 ). One of the fundamental characteristics of agile methods is that they support task assignment as a team- and individual-level activity and disregard the traditional role of the project manager w.r.t. tasks delegation (Nerur et al. 2005 ). Typically, teams practicing agile methods self-assign technical tasks or user stories during the development cycle (Hayata and Han 2011 ; Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ). Agile methods are seen to term this self-assignment differently such as “volunteering”, “signing up”, “committing”, and “pulling” (Beck 2005 ; Lee 2010 ; Deemer et al. 2012 ). Empirical studies have been conducted on novice (Almeida et al. 2011 ; Lin 2013 ) and experienced agile teams (Masood et al. 2017a ; Masood et al. 2017b ) to study task allocation decisions, strategies and workflow mechanisms. These studies inform us that tasks assignment in Agile teams is not the sole responsibility of the manager or other team members.

Self-directed task allocation or self-assignment is acknowledged as a fundamental characteristic of self-organized teams (Vidgen and Wang 2009 ; Deemer et al. 2012 ; Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ; Strode 2016 ; Hoda and Noble 2017 ). Yet, research on self-assignment in agile software teams has been limited in scale and depth. The focus of such studies has mostly been around task allocation in global software development (Simão Filho et al. 2015 ). Mak and Kruchten ( 2006 ) proposed an approach to address issues that managers face for task-coordination and allocation in global software development environments using agile methods. The proposed solution and Java/Eclipse-based distributed tool ‘NextMove’ was meant to facilitate project managers in the prioritization of current tasks and generation of suitability ranking of team members against each available task helping project managers in making day-to-day task allocation decisions. Other researchers have proposed approaches (Mak and Kruchten 2006 ), models (Almeida et al. 2011 ) and frameworks (Lin 2013 ) to address task allocations problems in global software development contexts where agile was being used. The unique context of global software development implies the challenges of task allocation were more to do with the teams being distributed rather than them practicing agile methods.

Self-assignment of tasks has also been observed in open source software (OSS) development in both commercial and non-commercial projects (Crowston et al. 2007 ; Kalliamvakou et al. 2015 ). In an empirical study (Crowston et al. 2007 ), developers’ interaction data from three free/libre open source software (FLOSS) projects was examined to understand the process by which developers from self-organized distributed teams contribute to project development. Self-assignment was reported as the most common mechanism among five task assignment mechanisms, the remaining being, (a) assign to a specified person, (b) assign to an un-specified person, (c) ask a person outside project development team, and (d) suggest consulting with others. Task allocation in FLOSS development was seen to not involve any micro-management or task delegation through a project manager or an employer. Since these teams are composed of volunteers, the task assignment was mostly based on the personal interests of the contributor. The study identified several drawbacks such as people picking work, they are not good at or lacking prior experience which could impact the quality of the contribution and may require review by others. Similarly, developing code management practices and designing and using such tools is challenging when multiple developers contribute to the same parts of the project.

Existing research on self-assignment in co-located, e.g. non-distributed and non-open source, agile teams is very limited. Self-assignment in new agile teams is seen to happen as a gradual process, retaining a manager’s role at the beginning for tasks delegation (Hoda and Noble 2017 ). Our preliminary work conducted on a dataset of 12 agile practitioners from four teams of a single company based in India confirmed five main types of task allocation approaches in agile teams: manager-driven, manager-assisted, team-driven, team-assisted, and or self-directed (Masood et al. 2017a ). With time and experience, agile teams seem to dispose of the command and control attitude and are instead seen to move towards manager-assisted or team-assisted assignment and, in some cases, towards practicing self-assignment over time (Hoda and Noble 2017 ; Masood et al. 2017a ). As a part of that preliminary work, we also identified some motivational factors that agile developers take into account while self-assigning tasks such as technical complexity, business priority, previous experience with similar tasks, and others (Masood et al. 2017b ). However, we do not know in-depth what strategies the teams use to make self-assignment work despite certain intervening conditions. In this study, we investigated how self-assignment works in agile teams in a way that it’s not only beneficial to individuals, teams, and projects but also to the organizations.

Here we presented an overview of the related works of task allocation in agile software development. We will revisit them in light of our findings in Section 5 , comparison to related work .

3 Research Method

After considering a number of potentially suitable methodologies such as Case study (Yin 2002 ), Ethnography (Fetterman 2019 ), and Grounded Theory (Glaser 1978 ; Strauss and Corbin 1990 ), we adopted Grounded Theory (GT). The interest of researchers towards generating a theory to explain how agile teams make self-assignment work using a cross-sectional dataset not limited to few cases or organizations led the researchers to use GT. The intention is to uncover self-assignment from empirical data rather than validating any existing theories or hypotheses. Also, the focus of this study is around understanding the process, investigating strategies, and exploring underlying behaviours, and influencing factors, and so GT was particularly well-suited.

GT comes in various versions, Classical/Glaserian , Strauss and Corbin, and Charmaz Constructivist , we employed the Strauss and Corbin version due to several reasons:

It follows a more prescriptive approach than classical GT (Coleman and O’Connor 2007 ; Kelle 2007 ) leading the researcher through clear guidelines, and, as a novice GT researcher, the first author found this useful.

It builds on research question which is open ended and drives the direction of research (Strauss and Corbin 1998 ).

It provides an additional analytic tool for axial coding in the form of a coding paradigm, which can help GT researchers identify the categories, sub-categories, and their relationships much earlier in contrast to classical GT theory where this emerges after multiple rounds of analysis (Seidel and Urquhart 2016 ).

The study comprises of two phases, each including multiple iterations of data collection and analysis as shown in Fig. 1 . In the first phase, we explored the task allocation process in Agile teams. In the second phase, we narrowed down our focus to self-assignment as a specific task allocation process. We collected the data in multiple rounds, data of each round was analysed before collecting more data to ensure theoretical sampling. This was done until we reached theoretical saturation. This is evident from our interview questions which were revisited and revised to meet the narrowing focus of the GT study. The primary data sources for phase1 were face-to-face interviews and for phase2 were pre-interview questionnaires, face-to-face semi-structured interviews, and team observations of agile practices. We describe these in the following sections. The additional documents, such as interview guides, pre-interview questionnaire etc. can be found as supplementary material (Masood et al. 2020 ).

figure 1

Phases of iterative Data Collection & Analysis (DSM = Daily Stand-Up; SPM = Sprint Planning Meeting; TBS = Task Breakdown Session; CR = Code-Review; RET = Retrospective; TRI=Squad Triage; BP = Backlog Prioritization)

3.1 Data Collection & Analysis (Phase1)

Phase1 aimed to investigate the task allocation process in agile teams. The focus was to study the task allocation strategies in agile teams. The authors collectively prepared the interview guide (all authors), conducted semi-structured interviews (second author), transcribed the interview recordings (first author) and analysed (all authors) to reduce any bias and improve internal validity through researcher triangulation. The interview guide designed to collect data for this phase focused on four main areas (Fig.  2 ):

professional background: e.g. please tell me about your professional background

agile experience e.g. how long have you been using agile practices?

current team and project, e.g. which practices have been used regularly on this project?

task allocation practices e.g. how does task allocation happen in your team?

figure 2

Examples of interview questions for Phase1 and 2

We sent invitation to the “Agile India” group to recruit participants for phase1. An Indian software company responded with a willingness to participate in the study. We interviewed 12 participants in-person from that company. Table 1 summarizes the demographics of the participants (P1-P12), highlighted in lighter shade of grey. Each interview took approximately 30–60 min. These face-to-face interviews helped to record the verbal information and capture the interviewee’s expressions and tone (Hoda et al. 2012 ). All these interviews were recorded and transcribed for analysis. The data collected from phase1 was manually added in NVivo data analysis software. The data collected helped in developing an initial understanding of task allocation in agile teams. We applied open coding, the Strauss and Corbin GT’s procedure of data analysis (Strauss and Corbin 1990 ) on participants’ transcribed interview responses. During open coding, we labelled the data with short phrases that summarize the main key points. These were further condensed into two to three words, captured as codes in the NVivo. As a result of data analysis, different concepts from similar codes emerged, one the most prominent of which was task allocation through self-assignment. Others included manager-driven, manager-assisted, team-driven, and team-assisted task allocation (Masood et al. 2017a ). The results of phase1 directed us to focus on self-assignment as the substantive area of the study in the next phase.

3.2 Data Collection (phase 2)

Phase2 aimed to investigate self-assignment as a task allocation practice and explore how agile teams make self-assignment work. The goal of the study was to build a theory to identify what leads to and facilitates self-assignment process, what strategies are used by the agile teams to make self-assignment work, and the consequences of these strategies. As with phase1, the authors collectively prepared the instruments i.e. pre-interview questionnaire and interview guide (all authors), conducted interviews (first author), and analysed them (all authors) to mitigate potential bias. The pre-interview questionnaire gathered basic and professional details of the participants and the interview guide was primarily used to facilitate the interviewer and the interview process to collect details around various aspects of self-assignment. The interview guide was refined throughout to accommodate the exploratory nature of the study. All the interviews conducted during phase2 were transcribed for analysis either by the first author or the third-party transcribers. The pre-interview questionnaire and the interview guide used to collect data during the phase2 focused on the following main areas (Fig. 2 ):

current team and project, e.g. which agile practices have been used regularly on this project?

Various aspects of self-assignment, e.g. How does self-assignment take place in your team? What problems do you (as a developer)/your team (as a manager) face while picking up tasks? Please provide an example with how these problems were solved.

Following Grounded Theory’s guidelines of refinement and constant narrowing-down, the interview focused on self-assignment and its various aspects. From phase1, we noticed that capturing participants’ demographics data was taking a significant amount of time during the interview, sometimes leaving interesting aspects unexplored. So, for phase2, demographics and supporting details such as professional background, agile experience, current team and project related details were gathered using a pre-interview questionnaire filled by each participant before their interview.

To recruit participants for phase2, we sent invitations to multiple online groups, and those who showed willingness to participate verbally or through emails were contacted. Social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Meetups groups such as “Agile Auckland”, “Auckland Software Craftsmanship” served as useful platforms to recruit participants in New Zealand. Once a participant contacted us showing their willingness, we requested them to share basic and professional details through the pre-interview questionnaire. The details gathered from the pre-interview questionnaire also helped us limit our context to individuals and teams who practice self-assignment at some level and with varied frequency (always, frequently, rarely, and occasionally). Agile teams not practicing self-assignment were out of scope. We conducted 30 more interviews (28 in-person and 2 via Skype). These semi-structured interviews were conducted for 30–60 min per participant. Table 1 summarizes the demographics of the participants involved in the phase2 of study in darker shade of grey.

The first author attended multiple sessions of agile practices while observing agile team ‘T11’ comprised of 7 members. This included attending four daily stand-ups of duration 10–15 min each, two one-hour sprint planning meetings for two sprints, two-hours task-breakdown sessions for two sprints, one 30-mins code-review session, four squad triage sessions of 10–15 min each which focused on the outstanding issues requiring clarifications, discussions or any decisions, one backlog prioritization 30 mins, and an hour long retrospective meeting. Figure 3 . captures some glimpses of the sessions attended during these observations. Observations of practices supplemented our understanding of the self-assignment process, practices, and strategies followed by the teams.

figure 3

Team T11 Observations (Top left: Sprint Planning, Top right: Task Breakdown & Allocation Session, Bottom left: Physical Task Board, Bottom right: Digital Task Board)

The entire study involved 42 participants represented through numbers P1 to P42 for confidentiality reasons. Table 1 summarizes the demographics of all the participants. Participants were working for software companies developing software solutions for healthcare, accounting, finance, transport, business analytics, and cloud services. Participants were working in New Zealand (71.5%) and India (28.5%) and varied in gender with 86% male and 14% female. Age and professional experience varied from 2 to 25 years of experience. They were directly involved in the software development with job titles as developer, consultant, product owner, architect, lead developer, and scrum master. Most of the participants were practicing Scrum, whereas some used a combination of Scrum and Kanban. They used agile practices such as daily meetings, customer demos, pair programming, iteration planning, release planning, reviews and retrospectives.

3.3 Data Analysis (phase 2)

The Strauss and Corbin’s version of GT comprises of three data analysis procedures: open, axial, and selective coding (Strauss and Corbin 1990 ). All these procedures were interwoven and were conducted mainly by the first author with the underlying steps such as defining emerging codes, concepts, sub-categories, and categories being thoroughly discussed on an on-going basis, and finalized with the co-authors, including a GT expert. The use of analytical tools such as diagramming, whiteboarding, and memo writing facilitated the analysis process. The quantitative data was collected using a pre-interview questionnaire and the qualitative data in the form of transcripts, observation notes, and images were uploaded in NVivo. Figure 4 provides a step-by-step example of applying all these procedures.

figure 4

Example of applying Grounded Theory data analysis procedures, Open Coding, Axial Coding, Selective Coding

Open coding

We started the data analysis with open coding, in which all the interview transcripts were analysed either line by line or paragraph by paragraph as appropriate and represented with short phrases as codes in the NVivo software. With constant comparison within same and across different transcripts, we grouped similar codes to define a concept , a higher level of abstraction. Sometimes, multiple concepts were generated from single quotes as shown in a few examples in Fig.  4 . These concepts were identified in the data and sometimes defined in terms of their properties and dimensions to contextualize and refine the concepts. The extent to which this could be done relied on the level of details were shared by the participants. Then, we integrated concepts into the next level of data abstraction, categories . The outcome of open coding was a set of concepts and categories.

Figure 4 illustrates the open coding and constant comparison procedures using multiple examples, starting from the raw interview transcripts of the participants [P13, P18, P21, P26, P31], and observation notes [T11] listing the category, concept, property and dimensions for each transcript excerpt as examples. For example, excerpt from P13 resulted in multiple concepts ‘picking complex tasks’, ‘lacking expertise’, ‘demanding effort’ . All these were grouped under the category ‘barriers to self-assignment’. These came from the answers to questions like ‘ What problems and challenges do you (as a developer)/your team (as a manager) face while picking up tasks? ’. In addition to concepts and categories, we also identified properties and dimensions. Properties are ‘ characteristics that define and explain a concept’ and dimensions are ‘variations within properties’ . For example, one of the participants P31 shared that their presence influenced people’s self- assignment choices and decisions. This led us to classify ‘ intervention’ as a property, and ‘ intervention level’ as a dimension (see Fig. 4 ). The open coding process was applied on the entire data set (interviews and observations) of the study. This way all the conditions, strategies and consequences were identified, categorized, and reported. The categorisation was discussed during regular team meetings and refined with constant feedback from the co-authors.

Axial coding

Next, we applied axial coding, a ‘process of systematically relating categories and sub-categories’ . Sub-categories are also concepts that refer to a category providing further clarifications/details. Strauss recommends using ‘analytical tools’ to define relationships between categories and sub-categories (Strauss and Corbin 1990 ). One such tool is Coding Paradigm which guides the researcher to illuminate the conceptual relationships between concepts/categories by identifying the conditions, actions/interactions, and consequences associated with a phenomenon. Strauss proposed variants of the coding paradigm to facilitate axial coding (Urquhart 2012 ). All of these are used as analytical tools and organization schemes (Corbin and Strauss 2008 ) which help to arrange the emerging connections and identify the relationships. To the best of our knowledge, this is one of the very few software engineering research studies (Giardino et al. 2015 ; Lee and Kang 2016 ) that apply and illustrate an in-depth application of Strauss and Corbin’s Grounded Theory, including the use of their “coding paradigm” (in Fig.  5 , presenting the Phenomenon, Context, Causal Condition, Intervening Conditions, Strategies, and Consequences).

figure 5

How agile teams make self-assignment work (using Strauss’s Coding Paradigm, including Phenomenon, Context, Causal Condition, Intervening Conditions, Strategies, and Consequences)

In Selective Coding , we started building a storyline presenting the essence of our study where each sub-category and category captured a part of the whole story of making self-assignment work (presented in Fig. 4 ). How agile teams make self-assignment work emerged as the most prominent and central phenomenon from our data analysis process (described in section 4 ) that was binding all the sub-categories together, strengthening the relationships identified during the axial coding. It was during the selective coding, we confirmed which relational phrases such as ‘mediates’, ‘overcome by’, ‘give rise to’ were fitting well to our entire theory model in Fig. 5 . It was also during the selective coding, when theoretical saturation was reached and no new concepts, categories or insights were identified. Then, finally we revisited and refined the categories to make sense of the entire theory explaining the phenomenon.

We present our grounded theory of making self-assignment work in agile teams . The section is structured to follow Fig. 5 . which visually represents our theory and illustrates its categories in the following sub-sections in detail. In the following sections, we present all our findings that comprise the overall theory (Fig. 5 ), including plenty of quotations from the raw data and sample observation notes/memos.

The grounded theory of making self-assignment work in agile teams explains the ( a ) context (described in section 4.2 ) and ( b ) causal conditions that give rise to the need for self-assignment (described in section 4.3 ), ( c ) a set of facilitating conditions that mediate how self-assignment may be enabled (described in section 4.4.1 ), ( d ) a set of constraining conditions that mediate how self-assignment may be constrained (described in section 4.4.2 ) and which are overcome by a set of ( e ) strategies applied by agile teams (described in section 4.5 ), which in turn result in ( f ) a set of consequences (described in section 4.6 ), all in an attempt to make the central phenomenon, self-assignment, work.

4.1 The Phenomenon – How Agile Teams Make Self-assignment Work

One of the key findings of our study is that self-assignment is not as easy and straightforward as might be expected. It comes with challenges and requires a set of strategies to make it work in practice. Our findings indicate clearly that self-assignment does not simply imply picking whatever tasks team members want. Development team members are bound to choose tasks based on their business needs and priorities as stated by P30.

‘It’s not just like, go out there and choose whatever you want to work on…it’s like team commits, and whatever they’ve committed, they’ve selected tasks from a triaged [prioritized] list and they’re committing to that work.’ – P30, Lead Developer

We identified that transitions to self-assignment does not happen automatically but teams with a positive mindset, an encouraging Scrum Master who values teams and empowers autonomy, and the use of effective strategies lead to effective self-assignment smoothly. As such, the key phenomenon identified in our analysis was “ how agile teams make self-assignment work ”.

4.2 The Context– Contextual Details and Conditions

Beyond the demographics captured in the pre-interview questionnaires (participant age, gender, experience, etc.), other contextual details emerged during our in-person interviews and while observing team practices to understand how self-assignment works. The variation in the team setup (co-located, distributed), work experience (novice, experienced) and team’s agile experience (novice, transitional, mature) can have influence on the facilitating/constraining conditions and corresponding strategies. We will see that the contextual conditions vary in their application. For example, strategies identified to facilitate self-assignment in distributed team contexts were different to those for co-located team context. Similarly, strategies for new team members were different from those for mature, experienced teams. While manager intervention may not be a constraining condition for teams with flat structure without managers and so the strategies cannot be applied in such settings. Teams self-selecting their tasks at the beginning of the sprint may have different constraining conditions when compared to teams which self-assign the tasks during the sprint. The contextual details are best understood in relation to the related conditions and strategies, and so these contextual details are weaved into our descriptions in the following sub-sections.

4.3 The Causal Conditions – Leading to Adopting Self-assignment

In this study, the participants were questioned about why they chose to self-assign. In result, we identified many different reasons for adopting self-assignment. The most common cause was it being a natural part of the agile transformation represented as U1. Other causes reported by the participants are related to issues with manager-driven assignment referred by U2. We used the term ‘manager’ to refer to all management roles (i.e. project managers, scrum masters, and team leads).

4.3.1 U1: Natural Part of Agile Transformation

The most common rationale [ N  = 10] behind opting to practice self-assignment evolved naturally with an understanding of the scrum methodology (Deemer et al. 2012 ) and agile manifesto (Beck et al. 2001 ). As teams adopted agile methods, they also became more self-organized.

‘...It [self-assignment] naturally started off that individuals in a team are responsible to go and select ... So, I think it was just our understanding of the Scrum methodology and agile Manifesto’ –P42, Technical Lead

4.3.2 U2: Issues with Manager-driven Assignment

Issues with the manager-driven assignment approach caused some participants to drift towards self-assignment. These issues include growing frustrations among team members, lack of motivation, low quality of work and inaccurate estimates.

Growing frustrations among team members

A quality assurance analyst P36 identified frustrations as a cause that led to the team adopting self-assignment. The Scrum Master may not always be aware of frustrations of the team, as explained by the participant, recalling a particularly challenging experience:

‘It was one Quality Assurance Analyst, she broke down, saying that I can’t do it anymore. She was required [assigned] to test something in the cloud, introducing her in just the last minute… When I saw her collapsing down, I had lots of empathy with her. And then in our retrospective, I also started exploding and I’m not taking any allocation. This is all going wrong. The scrum master went back, she came again, and she said, I will not allocate anything, you, as a team, sort out the distribution.’ –P36, Quality Assurance Analyst

Lack of motivation

Some participants described that team members are more motivated and happier when they have some level of ownership and when they see value in what they’re doing. For example, participant P41 highlighted lack of motivation as a reason to replace the manager-driven task allocation with self-assignment and participant P40 revealed happiness among team members with self-assignment.

‘Prior to this [self-assignment] they [team members] were less motivated’ –P41, Senior Architect ‘With self-assignment people are happier. They feel more in charge of what they’re doing, they have that sense of ownership.’-P40, Consultant

Low quality

It was also indicated that when it was someone else in the team assigning the tasks, the quality of the work was not that good. This could be because the person assigning the task may not always be well-aware of an individual’s technical skills and interests.

‘[Earlier] most of the time it was Scrum Master or the PM’s say who’s going to do what….and the quality of the output wasn’t that great’ – P37, Head of Product Delivery

This in a way is correlated with lack of motivation as work quality is good when the team members are motivated and more committed.

‘When they [team members] are motivated, I see them delivering exceptional results’ –P41, Senior Architect

Inaccurate estimates

It was also reported that the shortcomings of manager-driven task allocation helped participants take up self-assignment. One of these shortcomings was the possibility of making wrong assumptions because the manager was not always fully aware of the actual implementation details, underlying technical risks, and the expected time to perform a task, potentially leading to inaccurate estimates.

‘When a manager hands it [user stories/tasks] down, often they’ll either make estimates, and then they’ll hold you to their estimates and then there are all sorts of problems. – P15, Technical Lead & Scrum Master

The developer P16, agreed with the Scrum Master’s point of view.

‘Team deciding on their own capacity is better than being handed down [estimates] because if a manager puts their finger in the air and makes a wrong assumption, that sends unrealistic message to the business’ – P16, Developer

4.4 The Intervening Conditions – Conditions Influencing Self-assignment

These causal conditions led agile teams to adopt and practice self-assignment. Next, we will see what and how the intervening conditions influence the self-assignment process. We have elaborated these conditions as factors that facilitate or constrain our phenomenon. The conditions that facilitated the self-assignment process are described as facilitating conditions in sub-section 4.4.1 and the conditions that hindered the process are mentioned as constraining conditions in sub-section 4.4.2 . These are listed in Table 3 .

4.4.1 Conditions Facilitating Self-assignment

There are certain facilitating conditions, which are broad, general conditions that influence the phenomenon. The phenomenon can be facilitated provided these conditions are met. In this study, we identified nine facilitating conditions classified into three categories. Some of these are specified as attributes of the artefacts and agile practices, others as attributes of people.

Artefacts-related facilitating conditions

Agile teams create artefacts in the course of product development. These artefacts are useful in tracking product progress, providing transparency and prospects for inspection and adaptation to the stakeholders (Schwaber and Sutherland 2011 ). Some of the common Scrum artefacts are Product backlog, Sprint backlog, Definition of Done (DoD), etc. (Deemer et al. 2012 ). Attributes of agile artefacts were reported to facilitate self-assignment, such as F1 ( appropriate task information ), F2 ( appropriate task breakdown ), F3 ( well-defined Definition of Done ), and F4 ( well-groomed product backlog ). These are detailed through examples below.

F1: Appropriate task information. Requirements-related work items in agile are generally defined as epics or features (for high-level requirements) and user stories or tasks (for lower level requirements) (Bick et al. 2018 ). High-level work items are generally allocated to the development teams who break them down into user stories and technical tasks either individually or collectively. Providing enough information on the work items was seen to be of vital importance to effective self-assignment and is identified as the most important facilitating condition as stated by a majority of the participants [P14, P18, P19, P20, P22, P26, P28 - P31, P37, P40-P42]. The team members understand the problem and feel confident to self-assign if sufficient details are provided against the work items. Having comprehensive information not only helps the development team understand the problem and propose solutions but also identifies the task dependencies involved and the impact it makes on other modules. Particularly, this supports the junior team members who are initially hesitant to ask for help. Additionally, with enough details on the tasks, it is quite unlikely that team members will have to go to other team members for getting clarifications and instead rely on themselves. This is accepted by both the managers and the developers as indicated in quotes below.

‘It [task] should have enough details, that’s the most important thing.’ –P22, Developer ‘You’ve got to make sure that you have enough information either in the card or in the explanation so that they (team members) do feel confident with taking on that task.’ – P14, Technical lead & Developer

F2: Appropriate task breakdown . Appropriate level of granularity while breaking down tasks is seen to drive the work allocation in the right way. This indicates that it’s not just the task’s comprehensiveness that makes it understandable to team members, but the way the breakdown is done also adds clarity on it. For example, while defining a form if developers start writing about every field name as a task, most of the time will be taken defining it which is not useful in any way. If the tasks are not broken down appropriately it could lead to ambiguity resulting in assignee’s lack of confidence to complete the task on time. A more decent breakdown of tasks facilitates the individuals in making reasonable choices as it makes the tasks clearer, more understandable, and easier to do.

‘The key is not to split tasks to such a smaller level so that it becomes very difficult to allocate. You want granularity but you want a certain level of granularity’ – P18, Software Architect

F3: Well-defined Definition of Done. DoD provides clarity to work item’s (feature, story, or task) definition and is considered met when it fulfils the customer’s acceptance criteria. If the acceptance criteria or DoD is vague and lacks clarity, then there is a potential risk of wrong interpretations of the work items. The team members may not pick them to avoid discussions required to gain clarity or assume the task could be harder to complete. They may not pick them considering that fleshing out the right acceptance criteria would be an additional task. Well-defined done criteria help in making effective choices while self-assignment tasks, as stated by P27.

‘It is important that done criteria is properly defined at the beginning of the sprint or whenever the task is available, with insufficient DoD they [team members] are unlike to choose the work’ – P27, Developer

F4: Well-groomed product backlog . Agile teams perform product backlog grooming and refinement sessions mainly to refine and improve user stories, and to estimate and prioritize the backlog items (Deemer et al. 2012 ). A well-refined structure in the product backlog seems to contribute as a facilitating factor towards effective self-assignment. The backlog should not be only well-groomed but also consistent so that it’s not undergoing extraneous changes in priorities. With too many changing priorities, the backlog can be unwieldy and challenging to manage as indicated by P29.

‘If you have an environment where the backlog of stories coming up, or switching the priorities, or changing every day, then it’s hard’ – P29, Developer & Scrum Master

Well-defined and detailed artefacts and concepts such as the technical tasks or user stories, product backlog and definition of done facilitated self-assignment.

Practices-related facilitating conditions

Facilitating conditions consisted of practices such as F5 ( collective estimation and task breakdown ) and F6 ( estimation before prioritization ).

F5: Collective estimation and task breakdown entails a combined effort involving everyone in the team (Deemer et al. 2012 ; Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ). This helps in getting input from all the team members, sometimes defending their individual estimates, sharing assumptions and knowledge, keeping all on the same page, therefore providing all team members the opportunity to choose any task. This collective estimation and effort support collective awareness of the task. No one can disregard a task as the team members collectively perform the breakdown and estimation of tasks, share the information, help and indicate the right direction so the chances of mistakes and inaccurate estimates can be less.

‘During the planning we do everything together, sharing, creating the tasks, it means that everyone knows and owns those tasks. So, no one could say I didn’t grab a task, it’s not my estimate’ – P15, Technical Lead & Scrum Master

F6: Estimation before prioritization. In a few cases, it is seen as important to estimate tasks well in advance of the sprint. Having estimations a few iterations ahead of the sprint was seen to help the teams practice self-assignment since it ensures a long list of tasks is available to choose from providing more options for the team to select and exercise autonomy. This provides an opportunity to get prepared for the work in advance allowing the team to move tasks as per their and business needs. As a result, team members can commit to tasks of their choice.

‘We made sure that we were about 4 to 5, maybe more, Sprints ahead in estimation at any point in time. So the problem with prioritising before estimation is that when the team commits, the set of options is very small so they don't actually feel like they’re exercising autonomy. So by giving us the flexibility to be 5-6 Sprints ahead, allowed the team to go, ‘you know, if we do this thing that’s in Sprint number 4 now, you know, we’re preparing the groundwork for something that’s coming later, let’s move that up’. And now the team starts self-organising or practicing autonomy’ – P30, Lead Developer

As reported, this worked well in an experienced autonomous team of developers who were free to bring items into the backlog, based on their requirements. The team was doing estimations within a two-week Sprint, product grooming three times, every two weeks. It should be noted that estimating 4–5 sprints in advance may not be practical in all settings due to time constraints. However, estimating 2–3 sprints ahead may not be that unrealistic as a trade-off for the team to self-organize and practice autonomy.

People-related facilitating conditions

Some attributes of the people involved in the self-assignment, such as F7 ( In-depth product knowledge ), F8 ( Good understanding of problem ), F9 ( People behaviour including technical self-awareness, sense of ownership, understanding of importance ) are also reported to mediate the self-assignment process.

F7: Strong product knowledge. Strong in-depth product knowledge makes developers and testers familiar with different areas of the application. That makes them more competent, and they are more comfortable to make the right choices when self-assigning tasks. It is likely to build their confidence, increase productivity, and improve their work quality.

‘Well naturally whoever knows the area of work, the piece of software or the problem that needs to be addressed that’s most productive’ – P20, Lead Developer

F8: Good understanding of problem. Also, understanding the work items and associated problems plays an important role as acknowledged by both developers and Scrum Masters. With an incorrect understanding of a problem, it is possible that the attempts to resolve the problem will also be flawed. Therefore, having a mutual and accurate understanding of the problem is important for self-assignment. Developers are typically seen reluctant to choose the tasks that they do not understand well as indicated by P29.

‘Having a good understanding of the stories that need to be done, I think that is important. If I have many questions about a story, I can’t self-assign, because I don’t know what needs to be done.’ – P29, Developer & Scrum Master

F9: People Behaviour. Additionally, other behaviours and attitudes that were reported as facilitating conditions by multiple experienced managers and team members were: self-awareness of technical abilities as a team or as individuals and having sense of ownership and commitment. If the individuals and teams are well-aware of their technical abilities, they would make reasonable choices individually or collectively.

It has been acknowledged both by the managers and agile team members that when people select a task, they have the freedom to choose their own direction which boosts their motivation to perform better.

‘The most important thing in my view is people have buy-in, they commit and agree on the tasks that they want to go and do. And I think that gives them a sense of ownership, it gives them a sense of choice and commitment.’ –P42, Technical Lead

With this autonomy and opportunity to choose, one can naturally grow responsibility and commitment towards that work enabling a sense of ownership. On the other hand, if the team members are being forced to work on something, they are less likely to own it. This indicates if these attitudes are manifested in individuals, they can help to facilitate the self-assignment process.

4.4.2 Conditions Constraining Self-assignment

We identified ten conditions that were seen to constrain self-assignment through posing some challenges. Similar to the facilitating conditions, these fall under Practices, Artefacts and People-related conditions.

Artefacts-related constraining conditions

The only constraining condition reported in this study under artefacts is C1 ( Self-assignment for Dependent tasks ) which is listed below.

C1: Self-assignment for Dependent tasks. Some tasks rely on other tasks to be completed before they can be started. This can sometimes be challenging as some developers may pick work which may have a dependency on other tasks in the sprint. If the team members are unaware of these dependencies, they will likely self-assign such tasks, which can lead to slow or minimal progress.

‘Certain stories are dependent, but we avoid that as much as possible’ – P32, Developer ‘We try to avoid having dependant tasks, but it happen’ – P16, Developer

Practices-related constraining conditions

C2 ( Urgent Work ), C3 ( Tracking work distribution and accountability ), and C4 ( Distance Factor ) are identified as constraining conditions influencing the self-assignment process.

C2: Urgent Work. Many participants indicated that urgent work coming during the running sprint is one of the most influential factors that constrains practicing self-assignment [P13, P14, P16, P18, P19, P21, P23, P25, P28, P30, P33-P36, P40, P41]. When there is some high priority urgent task, e.g. a high impact bug in some part of the application or a show-stopper support reported by the customer, then self-assignment is constrained. An example of such work is shared below.

‘When product owner is getting feedback from the app stores about…..being annoying for customers…., Well guys, it’s really important that we squeeze this in as customers are really complaining about it’ – P23, Test Analyst

This is sometimes disturbing for the team members as it supersedes their ability to choose and takes away time and resources from the ongoing sprint. One of the participants disclosed this as follows:

‘Obviously, there are urgent stuff that just gets put onto my desk’ –P19, Developer

Another participant indicated that they could refuse to take up such urgent things but find it culturally incorrect. This could be because knowing the urgent nature of the work, and still not showing a willingness to work on such task may not please the manager or contradicts the team or business interest.

‘ Although we can say no, we’re not gonna do it, but it wouldn’t be culturally nice to say that ’ – P23, Test Analyst

C3: Tracking work distribution and accountability. Multiple team members choosing the tasks on the go during the running sprint gets challenging as no single individual is directly accountable for any specific issue which is reported later on. This is because multiple people contribute to one story by committing to different tasks. For instance, a story X may consist of 10 tasks, and if these tasks are done by five different developers, it could be hard to backtrack an issue as so many developers have been involved in the development of the story as stated by one participant. However, this is not reported to happen frequently.

‘ You may get [into situations], like if there’s a problem found [later], there may be less ownership on, maybe five people worked on a story, well, whose bug is that, yeah (laughter).’ – P15, Technical Lead & Scrum Master

As the team members are given freedom to choose tasks they may not choose wisely and make wrong estimations. The reasons could be that they try to impress a manager by taking more, long or complicated tasks or want to show their efficiency by working harder. This can sometimes lead to situations where the product is delayed due to the fact the person is not able to finish the tasks they committed. They are given a choice, but their wrong choice led to significant delays. However, managers sometime feel that people are not choosing enough tasks for a sprint.

‘The only bit of it[self-assignment] that I don’t like is it can get a little bit unambitious in terms of what can I get done. Like it’s easy to have an expectation set of 20 points per person, per Sprint for example. And mentally that’s what I tend to think …But sometimes I wonder if there would be more that could be done if people worked harder...And I felt like either somebody wasn’t working on their tasks or it wasn’t getting done’ – P31, Development Manager

One the other hand, one of the participants P20 shared the experience of penalizing by over-committing more tasks in a particular sprint and acknowledged picking amount of work that they are sure to accomplish.

I [team member] remember my took on a lot of work through, and hadn't finished things at the end of the sprint and so things were uncompleted and he [Manager] doesn't like that. So, I felt like trying to work hard is penalized. So, what happens now is I’ll do all the work in the sprint, won’t take on anything else’ – P20, Lead Developer

C4: Distance Factor. The distance factor , or remote location of teams and working across different time zones, seems to influence the application of self-assignment in some way as brought up by a couple of participants. This especially happens when half of the team is sitting close to the Product Owner or the client while the other half don’t have Product Owner or the client representative. They don’t get as much connectivity as the collocated ones and particularly disadvantaged when people don’t speak very clearly during discussions, missing some important piece of information. Similarly, the collocated members get an edge of expressing their interest for any task grabbing it earlier, enjoy the opportunity to show their enthusiasm and collaborate with the client in person. When the development team is collocated, it enhances communication and coordination of activities while picking tasks, e.g. sharing prior knowledge on a task, less or no pair programming with a remote team member. Working with teams in different time zones is more challenging. There is a good chance to struggle to get a task of interest if teams are operating in different time zones.

One of the team members who worked remotely revealed that being away from team physically sometimes jeopardized practicing self-assignment in its true essence.

‘Sometimes we are on remote call, client and US team are together in same room, when they start picking the tickets, having discussions, everyone is interested doing that work they have advantage of raising their hands they will quickly say ‘Hey, I'm interested ...they have advantage.... auction never starts here’ –P1, Tech Lead ‘If some person is on a different time zone, he’s still sleeping, and the job comes in today, how can he know, how can he assign himself on that? I’m going to do it.’ – P33, Tester

One manager shared how working dynamics such as real physical presence, missing facial expressions and gestures, sharing thoughts and skipping offline talks and different insights can undermine the self-assignment for people working remotely.

‘If you’re not in the room with seven other people, you’re on a speaker phone, you can’t see what’s going on, don’t experience the dynamic. And then people vote because you’re not seeing the hands go up, you’re not influenced by the democratic process. So, you have a different thought or insight because everybody else has been talking about it offline or whatever the case may be so, there’s a gap.’ – P30, Lead Developer

While observing one of the stand-up meetings [T11], one developer who used to work remotely for a couple of days every week due to some personal situation seemed disadvantaged. The daily stand-up was a lot harder, he had to dial in for it, and the team had to relocate to the recreation area for making the call. While observing the stand-up, we also noticed that the people weren’t speaking very clearly, so he probably did not hear half of it and even his voice broke up once during the call. Above we have included a memo (Fig. 6 .) saved in NVivo on to exemplify the influence of distance factor on making self-assignment work.

figure 6

Memo on influence of distance factor on self-assignment

Some intervening conditions apply to a specific context as identified by memo (See Fig. 5 .), e.g. distance factor is specified as one of the constraining factors, but this only applies when one or more team members are working remotely. These constraining conditions lead to certain action/interaction strategies which are adopted by agile individuals and teams as presented in Fig. 7 .

People-related constraining conditions

Some of these constraining conditions are associated to people’s behaviours. These are C5 ( Manager Intervention ), C6 ( Inadequate expertise & resources ), C7 ( Multiple people interested in similar tasks ), C8 ( Self-assigning tasks not skilled at ), C9 ( Self-assignment for new team members ), and C10 ( Personality Traits ).

C5: Manager Intervention. Some technical managers or leads were often found proposing or suggesting their way of doing things. This emerged as another intervening condition in letting team members practice self-assignment. The managers may not necessarily push their decisions, but team members may not like this interference while performing the task. They rather prefer doing it on their own without any directions as shared by P19.

‘But there definitely been times when he [manager] looked over and given suggestions. So, I don't really mind but I prefer him to not be there just so I can do it [task] on my own.’ – P19, Developer

On the other side, manager intervention can also be inadvertent. One manager talked about instances when it’s not their intention to assign tasks but the gestures like looking at someone during the daily stand-up, asking a question about a task or discussing an issue gives them an indication that the manager wants them to pick it. Another manager accepted that there are still times when they could not resist assigning a task, limiting the team members to make their own choices.

‘I guess there are still times where I might go up to someone and effectively assign them the task, because I’ve asked them a question and then I’ve said can you look into this... So that still does happen.’ – P31, Development Manager

Similarly, while observing team’s sprint planning meeting, this was also noticed that the manager having an eye contact with one of the developers while elaborating a story might have influenced the developer choosing the story as that team member was seen to self-assign that story.

C6: Inadequate Expertise & Resources . As another constraining factor, sometimes inadequate or limited resources are seen to influence the smooth execution of self-assignment. As an example, in a team with one tester, there is no option of choosing tasks. As an exceptional case, when most of the members in the team happened to be away, then also self-assignment is kept back.

‘There’s no self-assignment, because the Quality Assurance Analyst is a single person, he cannot, it’s only the Quality Assurance Analyst who can take up the thing –P29, Developer & Scrum Master

Also, sometimes managers and scrum masters have to assign tasks to keep a balance for equal distribution of work among the resources. For instance, if there is a high priority task that must be assigned, it goes to the person who is free but if it was not high priority, it could just go in the queue. Participant P21 shared an example of this as:

‘I [Scrum Master] tend to have something in my mind about who might be assigned partly because I want to make the logistics work, this person becomes free, this person has some other work therefore it probably goes to the person who is free.’ – P21, Scrum Master

From these examples, it is evident that sometimes when the resources are not fully available the manager has to purposely suspend self-assignment. Also, to keep a check and balance. This indicates that the availability of expertise and resources also impacts the self-assignment process.

C7: Multiple people interested in similar tasks. There are times when many developers/testers are interested in picking same tasks. This could be due to the level of ease or interest, potential for outside endorsement, opportunity to learn new technology etc. However, it could sometimes get challenging to not let the same people pick the fascinating ones, keeping an equal balance among all the team members and getting the full benefits of self-assignment.

‘As you’re [team] working down the board, getting stories done, you know, maybe the one [task] everyone wants to do is story number 4…’ –P3, Technical Lead & Scrum Master

C8: Self-assignment tasks not skilled at. Different instances were revealed around people’s reactions as constraining factors towards self-assignment. Developers and testers are seen to choose tasks that they might be interested in doing to explore and learn new things, and this sometimes ends up into low productivity, needing more help or making wrong estimations. This is because they may perceive the level of difficulty and effort required to complete the task incorrectly. The task could be more challenging and time-consuming than initially anticipated. But an encouraging manager has to outweigh these, firstly for the promising benefits of employee satisfaction through some control over what they pick for themselves and secondly allowing them to try, learn and improve their skills. However, this can be challenging as the task may need to be estimated accordingly or given more time for completion. It is also reported that sometime someone picks a task they are not skilled at and struggle later on which is indirectly encountered as another challenge with self-assignment.

‘A person might go and take a task that they’re not the right person for. So e.g. there might be a very specialist task in a security piece of work, and a person who might not have self-awareness might go and pick it up. And rather than them doing it in an hour, it might take about three days’ –P42, Technical Lead

C9: Self-assignment for new team members. Newcomers are neither well-acquainted with their fellow members nor with the team’s development processes in the beginning. They require some time to settle in, understand development practices, build trust and co-ordination with other team members. Similarly, introducing new members to self-assignment seems challenging, irrespective of being a novice or experienced professional they need some assistance to understand the team’s task assignment process in addition to getting an understanding of the technical domain and code base.

‘They’re [new member] just starting to know everything [process & project] and in a complex project as this, if you ask me, I would like them [Manager] to assign as I don’t know a thing about it’ – P33, Tester

C10: Personality Traits. Some people struggle in having confidence in their own choices, it might be part of their personality, or the culture they come from or due to lack of self-confidence. For instance, the shy or introvert members may find it intimidating to self-assign a task. They sit back while others self-assign tasks leaving behind the ones not picked up by others. Then, there are also less-confident members who may have the right skillset and knowledge to perform the task but are scared to raise their voice or are under the impression that other team members may be more capable of performing that task quickly and more efficiently. They have a natural tendency to believe in other opinions more and seen more comfortable with working on tasks assigned by others.

‘There are members who don’t want to pick something, it’s hard for them to step in front of the team and take something, rather than getting something. And that is a personal attitude, and that’s hard and if you have a team where more than one is like that, it’s hard to counter…’ – P32, Developer

4.5 Actions/interactions Strategies– To Workaround Challenges of Self-assignment

The constraining conditions described in sub-section 4.4.2 steer the individuals and teams to adopt strategies for overcoming the undesirable effects of the phenomena. We identified 14 strategies, which we describe in this sub-section and are illustrated in Fig. 7 .

figure 7

Action/Interaction Strategies for constraining conditions. The rectangular boxes represent constraining conditions, and the round-cornered boxes represent the strategies. Dashed lines link the constraining conditions with their respective strategies

S1: Task delegation

Task delegation is the most common strategy [ N  = 16] used for an urgent piece of work (C2) and when the team is short of resources (C6). Our analysis suggests that very high priority tasks are assigned directly to the person considered best suited, the specialists as indicated by a lead below.

‘So typically, I’d pick one of the more specialist people who know what’s going on and say ‘hey, can you please jump in and grab this task?’ – P14, Technical lead & Developer

Sometimes the task is allocated to the most suitable person with the desired technical skillset, at other times it may be directed to a person who has done similar work in the past as expressed by Participant P21 through an example:

‘We made a change in partition manager [module] three months ago, and this is related to that change. ‘You did that change, so you understand it. Can you go and do it?’ – P21, Scrum Master

This can result in a quick solution to the problem but was perceived as a threat to autonomy as the team members are no longer allowed to choose their own tasks, rather the assignment is being enforced on them through their manager.

S2: Offering work

An uncommon strategy [ N  = 6] practiced to address urgent work (C2) is that the manager will post a message through online channels, like slack or email, or during the stand-up indicating the high priority of the task and let the team members choose. Listed is an example where true autonomy can be easy to practice by providing the opportunity of choice as a variant of self-assignment in the form of volunteering.

‘X [Manager] posts a message that this ticket is priority, can someone have a look and then everyone will volunteer’ – P33, Tester

S3: Manager’s absence from task allocation sessions

To minimize the influence of the manager (C5), teams are seen to conduct the task allocation sessions without them. It helps them choose their tasks without the manager’s persuasion.

‘Had to persuade dev manager that [stepping out] would work and worked in other places till he reckoned and agreed the team was a bit more mature and he would step back letting them assign the tasks themselves and do their own breakdown.’ –P21, Scrum Master

Managers seem to have this self-realization too as expressed by P31.

‘I felt that I could be a little bit coercive too by saying yeah, X would be best to work on that one, and then suddenly he’s assigned to it by default only because I said that. And so that’s why I don’t participate in those meetings.’ – P31, Development Manager

We observed during a sprint planning meeting [T11], the manager briefed all the user stories to the team, and they collectively estimated them. Then the manager left the meeting room, and the team conducted the task breakdown session without him.

S4: Facilitating self-assignment

The scrum master is seen to play an influential role for ensuring an even distribution of work within the team (C3). When managers believe people are not choosing enough tasks for a sprint, it is the scrum master who is seen investigating the underlying cause. People may not be picking more tasks due to low confidence, no experience, lack of interest, other commitments such as working on other business as usual tasks, or to help others. In exceptional cases, when multiple team members show interest in similar tasks (C7), sometimes it’s the scrum master who intervenes to keep a balance ensuring everyone gets equal opportunities to learn and grow by experimenting new things.

Similarly, individuals and teams new to agile practices (C9) sometimes are seen struggling to adopt to that level of self-organization due to multiple reasons such as team member’s background, experience and attitude. It was shared by the scrum master [P21] that they started practicing self-assignment only to be part of the project initially i.e. practicing it for new development work. This was done to persuade their technical manager who had concerns around meeting a deadline when client demanded quick completion of work. SMs’ shared their experiences, when they had issues trying to get some members to take ownership and operate autonomously. There are diligent members who have no trouble picking tasks voluntarily, while it is also not unusual that there are members who barely self-assign unless everyone else in the team has self-assigned tasks. They rely on the SM to suggest them what tasks to self-assign. In such cases, scrum masters and managers are seen to play a primary role to encourage team members to volunteer and steer the team in the direction of self-organization as indicated below.

‘I am trying to get people in the way of thinking more with agile mindset. But also try not to push them too hard or too fast, cos then they kind of resist it’ –P29, Developer & Scrum Master ‘We’re trying to build a culture where people volunteer for stuff when Sprint planning happens. But we don’t have a team that is currently groomed with that attitude and mindset. So, we’re coaching them to be at that stage, so we ask them to call themselves out on what they want to work on, because they’re unsure of what to pick up first’– P26, Product Owner

Similarly, a good coaching conversation or one-on-one mentoring by the scrum master is reported as a strategy to help people who are not comfortable in raising their voices and choosing work for themselves (C10). However, as indicated by the participant this does not happen straightaway and demands a supportive scrum master and consistent team support to help shy, introverted people make choices and feel confident in their decisions.

I had one colleague, he was very silently, he was not really talking, he was a wonderful developer, he was really, really good, but he was not able to step in front of the team and take something. And I worked very long with him together, and we ‘taught’ him, and mentored him on a friendly way. It took a while, a long while ……… Because I taught him, I was kind of his mentor … and he learned it. – P32, Developer

This also goes back to the type of culture the team possesses. In an environment where people can have open discussions and address such problems either on individual or team level, this is easy to address. On an individual level, it is mostly the scrum master, mentor or coach who is responsible to facilitate the self-assignment process providing the guidance and helping them to overcome individual problems towards self-assignment. On the team level, the development team members work together to facilitate self-assignment, e.g. senior peers are also seen to play a significant role to support the junior team members.

S5: Self-assigning the next available task

When many people show interest in the same tasks (C7), for most of the teams the sprint rule of self-assigning the next available task automatically handles such situations. The first person who runs out of work can take the next available task on the storyboard. A senior participant shared that even being a senior developer, if he likes to do a task, at times he misses out because of this rule. This naturally addresses the issues of short of work, unequal distribution, under-committing, and over-committing of tasks (C3). In this scenario, it is to be ensured that there are enough tasks on the board so that no one gets short of work. It was observed during the sprint planning meeting [T11] that the scrum master included few stories as ‘could have’ to ensure everyone has work. These were treated as stretch tasks for the sprint.

‘As you’re[team] working down the board, getting stories done, you know, maybe the one[task] everyone wants to do is story number four, but no one can go to it until story number three has no more tasks they can work on. So, but the first person who runs out of tasks above that story will grab the task.’ – P15, Developer & Scrum Master

S6: Active participation and use of tools

Software tools facilitate self-assignment by providing all the information related to a work item in one place. They serve as central source of information and enable teams to stay up to date, increase transparency and visibility of work items. The use of online tools is identified as a useful strategy in keeping the remote members involved during the allocation process (C4). These tools make self-assignment easier as the team members can just access the tool irrespective of their location, look at the product and sprint backlog and self-assign items. The moment a task is selected it reflects the assignee details against the task. It serves as the single source of truth for everyone making the progress visible to people inside and outside the team, highlighting if people are picking up work, how long they are taking to accomplish the tasks or even used as a platform to ask or offer others help. These tools assist the team members to collaborate and communicate actively.

‘That’s the reason why we’ve got systems. So, for example, if I decided to work on this task, I’ll go into the system, assign that task against my name, and then nobody can take it from there. So, you can’t work on a task unless it has been assigned to you’ – P37, Head of Product Delivery

The remote team members are expected to engage more than the non-remote members, as they may be missing information and important discussions due to their physical absence. A participant stated that remote members need to participate more actively than the non-remote members.

‘So, you know, I always say that if you’re remote, you’ve got to do more work to engage, and the people that are not remote don’t care about your remoteness actually’ – P30, Lead Developer

S7: Highlighting dependencies

Another way to address dependencies between stories or tasks was through highlighting blockers on the story board to notify others that this task has dependency (C1).

‘We’ve got these little magnetic red things, we just go and put a blocker on them [dependent tasks], and the team knows why it’s a blocker. When the person finishes that card, they’ll pull it off, and often they’ll just pick that card as the next one anyway, just because they’ve finished it, and it’s unblocked.’ – P14, Technical lead & Developer

S8: Isolating dependent tasks

The team shared several ways they handle dependent tasks (C1) and some of them are reported to work well. The most effective and common method [ N  = 14] stated to face the challenge of dependent tasks is isolating dependent tasks across sprints. One sprint takes care of first part of dependency while the next handles the other dependent part.

‘The way we do it [dependent tasks] is we do identify that this will block this one. Because we’re only doing one-week sprints we sometime put the two cards in two different sprints. So, there’s immediately like a divorce between sprints, so you say hey we’ll do this one and this one, this one and this one, and often that works quite well.’ –P14, Technical lead & Developer

S9: Standalone task definition

Defining tasks in a way that they are kept mostly independent from the start is another shared strategy to address dependent tasks (C1). For example, defining a task in one step (including front- and back-end) is seen to be practiced instead of segregating them into front-end and back-end tasks which is more likely to increase dependency and cause delays.

‘So, its start to finish, like from the front end to the back end. So, we [team] don’t have a story where it’s just the front end, and a story that’s just the back end, so that then becomes a dependency.’ – P16, Developer ‘When they [team] slice a story or even the tasks, they create tasks that are what we call atomic, and are standalone.’ –P42, Technical Lead

S10: Flexible estimations

The most common strategy [ N  = 8] that is reported when developers pick tasks, they are not good at (C8) is to give more time i.e. over-estimate such tasks. P15 stated how team estimation goes low in such cases below.

‘If someone picks [a task] up, and they’re not familiar with it, our [team] estimate starts maybe too low. So, we would expect them to meet up that expectation, and say, maybe it was five hours, maybe the guy says it’s going to take me eight hours or 10 hours. And once it gets too big, you go, okay, do you need some help on that’ – P15, Developer & Scrum Master

S11: Task’s reassignment

In a few reported cases, the work gets taken away from the struggling person (C8) and given to others to accomplish the deadline. Team members find this removal from tasks as demotivating, so this is not specified as a preferred action. Others prefer passing on such tasks as indicated below.

‘If someone was struggling, they may give it away, but it’s never been taken’ –P15, Developer & Scrum Master ‘We’ve had examples where work has been picked up by somebody, and they’ve had to pass it onto somebody else to do, that happens.’ – P23, Test Analyst

Similarly, another participant specified considering task’s urgency to decide whether they will provide assistance or take away the task from them.

‘In those instances, two choices; either we put a mentor to work along with him and train him. If it’s not time critical, that’s what we would prefer doing. If it’s time critical, then we just take the task away from him and assign it someone else.’ – P37, Head of Product Delivery

S12: Pairing up with experienced resources

Teaming up with experienced resources and providing assistance to speed up the completion is also reported when someone has self-assigned a task, they are not good at (C8). This was also observed during the task breakdown session where two developers worked in parallel, one who was the module specialist worked on the development part of the story, while the other new to the module chose to prepare the unit tests for that story. This was how they were pairing up to work outside their expertise. When multiple developers are interested in similar tasks (C7), senior developers providing assistance is reported as another strategy where senior team members play the role of a mentor leading the other developer through completion of that task sharing knowledge.

‘Don’t just take the work and do it yourself [senior team members], even though it is easier for you, it’s good for them [member picking work not good at] teach them to do it’ – P29, Developer & Scrum Master

Similarly, new team members (C9) are seen pairing up to other experienced team members to obtain help. Having assistance from the day they started, is proven to be useful for new team members. This helps to build confidence over the time.

‘Just explain to them [new member], you work from the top down, and grab the next task that, that you think you can work on. We’ll probably do it, for the first few weeks, we’ll probably help him [new member] choose his tasks that might be easier for them to get into. Because they may not really understand what the tasks are. But after that, they’ll just grab something.’ –P15, Developer/Scrum Master

Pairing up the new team member with some senior developers is also reported to help them learn and fit in the team as indicated by P14.

‘I kind of buddied them up with one of my more senior dev [developer]. So, I made it very clear with him [Sr. Developer] that he was really responsible for making sure that this developer was up to speed. And because there was a buddy system, like she would always go to him first for some advice, for some help, and it was part of his day to day business that he had to help her’. – P14, Technical lead & Developer

At stages when the team members are found struggling with tasks, they have self-assigned (C8), some strategies are reported to address these situations. This is apparent in the shorter Sprints where tasks that are not accomplished get automatically noticed, and people start asking about the obstacles and offering help.

S13: Informal team discussions and negotiations

Managers shared multiple strategies e.g. involving all members in team discussions to develop mutual understanding and collective ownership for sprint tasks. This way all team members gained insights into the tasks, increasing their understanding from a technical point of view. So, having these conversations allowed them to make well informed self-assignment decisions. Similarly, another strategy is to encourage team members to have open informal discussions when multiple members are interested to work on the same task. This way everyone gets the opportunity to speak up if they want to work on that task. Team members are also seen negotiating with each other to work on tasks that interests them but picked by others (C7).

‘There’s always room for a team member to say, Look! I’ve seen that you’ve assigned yourself to this card. Do you mind if I do it, I’ve got particular skills in this area? That happens, it does happen’ – P23, Test Analyst

On the other hand, a couple of participants indicated this has never been a serious concern and most of the time team members are happy with whatever is on the top of the board.

S14: Fixed work assignment

One of the participants shared another strategy where they had a role ‘the bug manager’ in the team for the new team member (C9). The new team member was only responsible to handle all the bugs and ensure the stability of the platform. This way the new member was introduced to various areas of the application which helped them to explore, learn, and expand their knowledge with practice.

When I [new] joined the team... how do you [team] want me to be the bug manager, when I don’t know anything about your platform? Oh, it’s not, our platform now. So, I was for two weeks the bug manager, and after the two weeks, I knew the platform. – P32, Developer

4.6 Consequences – Of Strategies to make Self-assignment Work

The aforementioned strategies are used to overcome situations introduced by the constraining conditions and facilitate the process of self-assignment. These adopted action/interaction strategies helped to practice self-assignment positively, but there are also instances when undesired behaviours of practicing self-assignment are reported as negative consequences of adopted strategies. A list of consequences of these strategies, either positive, negative or both, are listed in Table 4 . Details on which consequences relate to each strategy are presented in Table 5 with a few examples elaborated below.

Manager’s absence from task allocation sessions (S3)

The manager may not know the nuts and bolts of a particular task while delegating it. Letting individuals choose takes off the responsibility from the manager allowing them to use their time and energy for other important and useful tasks. The strategy of not having the manager in assignment sessions (S3) results in effective utilization of manager’s time (N2+) as they will be able to invest their time on handling bigger problems then deciding which work should be done by whom.

This promotes autonomy (N1+) and increases opportunity to learn, grow and improve (N6+). It will provide individuals a chance to work on different tasks irrespective of their skillset supporting more cross-functionality (N7+) in the team. Team members can take on tasks outside of their areas of speciality which help them develop different skills offering them an opportunity to learn, grow and improve (N6+) their skills as stated by a developer.

‘It gives an opportunity for the individual to work on tasks that they would like to improve their skills on’ – P17, Developer

This improvement is not limited to individual’s technical skills, but also provides an opportunity to work on unexplored parts of the product. This technical learning can be more impactful when complemented with extensive product knowledge for career development and growth.

‘That way [self-assigning] we start discovering parts of the software that you not familiar with’ –P20, Lead Developer

This autonomy helps developers with effective self-management (N13+) and control their tasks. They could manage their own work e.g. prioritizing smaller, easier or harder tasks first suiting their convenience. The time they spend to ask to someone about the next task is utilized increasing productivity (N8+).

Task delegation (S1)

When an urgent piece of work arrives (C2) or the team is short of resources (C6) and task delegation (S1) is chosen as a strategy, then the manager would want them to work on areas where they would remain focused on their core activities and prior experience as acknowledged below:

‘Had it been me [manager] assigning, I would have always gone with my past experience and said, you’ve done it before, you do it quickly. So, the learning opportunities would have reduced in that kind of a scenario’ –P37, Head of Product Delivery

With this task delegation, autonomy (N1-), the opportunity to learn and grow (N6-) will be compromised resulting in threat to cross-functionality (N7-) and healthy team culture (N3-). Furthermore, empowering team members to choose instead of enforcing delegations automatically fosters healthy team culture (N3+) in the long run as indicated by one of the participants.

‘It [Delegation] will give you some sort of sense of progress in the short term if somebody micromanages other people, I guess you will get some traction and you will get some movement. But I don’t think in the long term that is sustainable or beneficial for the type of culture that we want to have’ –P42, Technical Lead

But at the same time since the task, in this case, will be done by an experienced person so the chances of errors will be less, the quality (N5+) of the work will be good and the maintenance time will not be more (+) compared to a situation where issues could arise due to lack of knowledge or experience. This would get things going quickly (+).

4.7 Volunteering and Offering Work (S2

If volunteering and offering work (S2) is chosen as a strategy then it encourages individuals to choose asserting autonomy (N1+) which naturally fosters a healthy team culture (N3+). However, depending on who picks the tasks, another contextual condition e.g. if an experienced person picks the task this is typically beneficial as the task will be done quickly (N4+) due to previous experience and the quality will not be downgraded (N5+).

‘I have experience in this, let me just pick this up and do it, and they can quickly resolve it. So, we’re able to respond quicker to the customer’s problems’ –P37, Head of Product Delivery

On the other hand, if task is being picked by an unskilled or inexperienced team member, then this can lead to a delay to deliver (N4-) with a potential compromise on quality (N5-).

5 Discussion

We found that agile teams are seen practicing self-assignment either as part of achieving self-organization and agile transformation or to address issues with manager-driven assignment, as described in sub-section 4.3 . We identified that self-assignment is influenced by a set of intervening conditions i.e. facilitating and constraining conditions which can either facilitate or hinder its adoption as addressed in sub-section 4.4 . We also found that different strategies are used to mediate the adoption of self-assignment (sub-section 4.5 ) with all the ensuing consequences specified in sub-section 4.6 . These intervening conditions can also be understood w.r.t. impact they make. e.g. people choosing tasks they are not skilled at is one of the primary challenges, as this leads to delay in delivering but sometimes this is acknowledged as the price for promoting learning and keeping people happy, and is accepted by managers as a trade-off to bear the benefits of self-assignment. However, there needs to be a balance, if all team members choose tasks, they are not skilled at, then this would definitely affect the team’s productivity and become a major constraining condition. But if one or two team members, choose tasks outside of their comfort zone that would not make a big difference. So, part of the manager (i.e. scrum master/coach/mentor) role is to ensure that assignments are not leading to failures, imposing risks on the broader context while balancing the need for learning and cross-functionality consistently.

It can also be seen from our data analysis that participants workaround some of the constraining conditions through different strategies. By definition, these strategies are used to ‘overcome the undesirable effect of the phenomena’. However, we found that some of the strategies, in fact, are geared towards avoiding self-assignment (e.g. S1, S11, S14) and do not have a positive impact on the team or the process. For example, when urgent work comes in, a major constraining condition, tasks are delegated to the most skilful person as the most obvious strategy which is an underlying threat to autonomy. On the other hand, if the manager asks for volunteers rather than enforcing decisions on them, they will feel they are still making a choice and exercising autonomy, which could give better outcomes. Knowing and understanding the priority and impact of the work, it is generally expected that only experienced or skilful person would be the one choosing such work. Interestingly, most of the strategies (e.g. S3, S4, S10) help facilitate and make self-assignment work within their settings. The analysis of data also shows that remote location does not necessarily affect the self-assignment decisions. It may, however, impact communication among the team members like any other agile practices, e.g. remote daily stand-up, retrospective, etc. which can introduce some challenges. Similarly, dependent tasks are specified as one of the constraining conditions, but it may be the poor planning and breakdown of tasks that can cause delays not the self-assignment choices.

The consequences specified in this study can be interpreted as pros and cons of the strategies to practicing self-assignment for individuals, teams and organizations. For instance, the opportunity to learn, grow and improve and self-management can be inferred as individual benefits, healthy team culture as a team benefit and improved quality and fast delivery as organizational benefits arising from the strategies of promoting self-assignment. On the contrary, situations such as taking away a task could influence the well-being of an individual negatively, i.e. demotivate them, delegating a task to a specialist frequently would stall the growth of the other team members, keeping flexible estimates can lead to delayed delivery eventually impacting customer satisfaction and organizational reputation. Our results showed that the scrum masters, technical managers, and team leads play a significant role in mediating these negative consequences to make self-assignment work in a sustainable manner. It would be useful to delve deeper into how the manager or team can mitigate and manage for these negative consequences in future studies. Interestingly, these pros and cons of strategies can also be interpreted as long or short-term consequences depending on the impact they make e.g. within a relatively short period of time, the impact (effective use of manager’s time) from not having manager involved in task allocation sessions can be seen. Similarly, delegating tasks might seem to be a fast way of getting the work done, but the impact it makes may not be beneficial for healthy team culture in the long run. On the other hand, outcomes like healthy team culture, improved quality, and better all-round teams may not be achieved instantaneously but will be evident over a period of time.

5.1 Comparison to Related Work

Although no other studies dedicatedly addressed self-assignment, there are some related studies addressing benefits and challenges of self-assignment as part of their findings.

Self-assignment helps to keep the teams motivated as identified by one of the empirical studies on agile challenges (Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ). This has also been supported by our results. Our study also reveals how self-assignment benefits individuals, teams and organizations. Researchers identified some challenges around self-assignment. Poor self-assignment can lead to loss of cross-functionality when the team members pick familiar and simple tasks (Vidgen and Wang 2009 ; Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ). However, Scrum master’s continuous monitoring and support can help the teams to address the risk of losing cross-functionality (Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ). Our results also acknowledged that the Scrum master plays a significant role in facilitating self-assignment in agile settings. Some examples include ensuring an even distribution of work with equal opportunities to learn and grow, good coaching conversations providing guidance, and helping team members to overcome individual problems towards self-assignment. Team members avoiding boring tasks (Strode 2016 ) is identified as another challenge. Team members are often hesitant to pick tasks with unclear requirements and acceptance criteria (Hoda and Murugesan 2016 ). These were identified as reasons to self-assignment challenges.

Our study identified other factors that make self-assignment challenging. These are C1: Self-assignment for Dependent tasks, C2: Urgent Work, C3: Tracking work distribution and accountability, C4: Distance Factor, C5: Manager Intervention, C6: Inadequate expertise & resources, C7: Self-assigning tasks not skilled at, C8: Multiple people interested in similar tasks, C9: Self-assignment for new team members, and C10: Personality Traits. In addition, we present a list of strategies such as S1 (Task delegation), S2 (Offering work), S3 (Manager’s absence from task allocation sessions), S4 (Facilitating self-assignment), S5 (Self-assigning the next available task), S6 (Active participation and use of tools), S7 (Highlighting dependencies), S8 (Isolating dependent tasks), S9 (Standalone definition), S10 (Flexible estimations), S11 (Task’s reassignment), S12 (Team-up with experienced resources), S13 (Informal team discussions and negotiations), and S14 (Fixed work assignment) to overcome these challenges [C1-C10]. It is also pointed out that multiple developers are seen interested in similar tasks due to their individual preferences. We have reported some of these individual preferences as motivational factors developers consider while self-assigning tasks (Masood et al. 2017b ) in one of our preliminary study.

5.2 Implications

Findings articulated in this study have direct significant implications for researchers and agile practitioners. The main contribution of this research is a theory of making self-assignment work based on rich empirical data. It adds to the limited agile literature on self-assignment and will assist researchers and practitioners in agile community. Other researchers can expand on this research while exploring various aspects of self-assignment and validating the study’s theoretical model (Fig. 5 ) in similar or different settings. This research has implications for agile practitioners. Our descriptions of the positive consequence of self-assignment should encourage novice agile teams and their managers to attempt and engrain self-assignment as a key practice. It will also assist agile teams struggling to practice self-assignment find solutions to their challenges as shared in this study. Our findings can also be used as a guide for the managers to facilitate self-assignment by empowering team members. The theory of making self-assignment work is presented in a form that can be understood and applied through well-defined: (a) context and (b) causal conditions (c) facilitating conditions, (d) a set of constraining conditions (e) strategies applied by agile teams, and (f) a set of consequences to make self-assignment work. Agile practitioners can benefit from these findings in multiple ways. For example, the mapping between constraining conditions and enabling strategies (captured in Fig. 7 ) can be used to find relevant strategies to tackle the constraints faced by agile practitioners in their unique contexts. For example, they could have flexible estimations (S10) foreseeing any delays. In situations when the assignee struggles to complete the task within the committed time, they should be encouraged to reassign (S11) i.e., pass it on or ask for help without fear or discomfort. The scrum master and the team can mutually decide to help or take away a task considering the task’s urgency. As another strategy, teaming up with an experienced member (S12) would help individuals get familiar and speed up the completion time.

From the data analysis and findings of this study, some of the recommendations for managers and teams are presented below. These recommendations are based on the strategies illustrated in the section 4.5 and in some cases one recommendation is related to multiple strategies indicated through the corresponding S#.

5.2.1 Recommendations for Managers and Teams

Managers can play a supporting role and encourage team members to choose tasks for themselves to gain benefits of self-assignment (S4).

Managers can ensure that the self-assignment decisions do not lead to increased specializations or threaten cross-functionality, rather assignment choices provide equal opportunities to learn (technology, applications, and tools) to maintain a balance of knowledge sharing (S4).

Managers can guide the team members if they feel they have committed to something which is hard to accomplish. However, they should avoid discouraging members to pick complex tasks. Taking away tasks from the team members is also not recommended (S4).

Once required information has been conveyed among the team and estimates and task breakdown is done, the manager can step out from the assignment sessions (S3).

If an urgent task comes in during a running sprint, the manager can ask for volunteers rather than imposing tasks on someone. Knowing the time pressure, it is likely that person with relevant skills will pick such a task (S2).

If multiple people are interested in working on the same task, they can either pair up (S12) or the manager can step-in and let one of them pick a task (S4), ensuring that the next time the other one gets to select their preferred task (S13).

The manager in collaboration with the team can monitor the status of the tasks on their preferred project management platform, e.g. Trello, JIRA, or a physical Scrum board. For instance, if an assigned task has the same status (e.g. “in progress”) for a long time it could be an indication of the assignee struggling to complete that task (S4, S6). Such issues can also be explicitly shared during the daily standup.

Managers can initially let the new team members observe the team allocating their tasks and understand the task allocation strategies. Other team members can help them choose easier tasks (S4) or pair them up with senior members for better understanding of the process (S12).

If someone selects a task, they are not familiar with or skilled at, the estimate for the task should take this into consideration and be kept generous to allow for extra effort (S10).

The team members miss updating their tasks on their preferred project management platform, which can potentially lead to issues e.g. multiple people working on similar tasks. Automatic reminders through tools or reminders in daily stand-ups can be useful to remind them to update their tasks regularly (S6).

Individuals can pick tasks in the presence of other team members e.g. at planning or at stand-up. This way other team members who have more knowledge about the task can provide assistance and transfer relevant knowledge if needed (S13).

The manager or team could include some ‘stretch tasks’ in every sprint, i.e. a few extra tasks ready, elaborated and estimated, in reserve, so team members can self-assign and complete them if they happen to finish all the other tasks early (S5).

After picking a story or task, if it turns out to be a significant unit of work, then the assignee or the team should break them down into sub tasks and set their status to unassigned on their preferred project management platform so that other members can self-assign them (S11).

Teams starting with self-assignment can initially apply for a part of their project e.g. new development features, enhancements etc. rather practicing for the entire project (S4).

5.3 Evaluation

We used Strauss and Corbin’s criteria list to evaluate the empirical grounding of the study (Strauss and Corbin 1998 ). We will address these criteria QC1-QC7 one by one. During open coding, we generated the concepts both in-vivo from the practitioners and conceptual codes given by the authors (QC1: Are concepts generated?). Figure 4 shows an example of how these were generated, and the coding process was applied. We systematically defined the relationships between concepts and categories and conceptual linkages applying coding paradigm during axial-coding. The coding processes used in the study resulted in concepts and categories with well-defined properties and dimensions (QC2: Are the concepts systematically related? QC3: Are there many conceptual linkages and are the categories well developed? Do categories have conceptual density?). While the study reports a single central phenomenon (making self-assignment work), it does determine conditions under which the phenomenon happens keeping into account the underlying variations and dimensions (QC4: Is variation built into the theory?). We gathered data from agile practitioners from various companies and different settings to examine concepts in different conditions so that our theory is representative of the contextual variations and wider agile community. We have used the participants’ real quotes, anecdotes, and experiences to define the concepts, associated properties and dimensions and have explained with examples (QC5: Are the conditions under which variation can be found built into the study and explained?). We have presented the research methodology (Section 3 ) and provided the sufficient data (coding examples, interviewers quotes, excerpts from interview guides and pre-interview questionnaire (Fig. 2 ) and research process details (Section 3 ) to justify the reliability of the process (QC6: Has process been taken into account?). The authors have explained the study’s analysis and findings in corresponding sections and believe the theoretical findings make a significant contribution to the current literature filling the gap with a comprehensive study on self-assignment. The presented theory and particularly the strategies and recommendations are beneficial for the agile practitioners (QC7: Do the theoretical findings seem significant, and to what extent?).

5.4 Limitations and Threats to Validity

This study has covered a limited review of related literature in research area as not much is available in literature about self-assignment as a way of task allocation in agile software development. We have not attempted to review the research findings which are not related to agile and software development and acknowledge that as a limitation. Our data set is limited to agile practitioners who showed willingness to participate. We have kept the participants, their companies, products, and third-party clients’ data confidential to adhere to the human ethics policy governing this study.

The study includes team practices observations from one company only. The strategies reported by the participants were based on data from phase 2 which involved co-located team members. Few participants shared their past experiences of working in remote settings, or instances where few members worked remotely so it is hard to differentiate strategies more suitable for co-located or distributed teams from the current dataset, this is included as a limitation and potential area for future research. The paper reported the important role the managers play to facilitate self-assignment. However, it is yet to be explored that how managers reconcile individual preferences with team priorities and business goals to make self-assignment beneficial for individuals, teams, and project outcomes. The study did not evaluate the effectiveness of the strategies used to work around the constraining conditions, which can be an exciting area for potential future work.

In this section, we describe the validity of the overall research method and findings. The data collected does not represent the entire agile community and we cannot claim generalizability . However, we employed data triangulation through multiple data sources (participants varying in roles, experiences, skillset, context, environment, culture, companies & domains) on a large dataset to mitigate the threats of lacking generalizability in the study. A detailed description of the data collection methods (pre-interview questionnaires, interviews & observations), context in which the research was conducted, and the findings are presented in the paper to benefit other researchers who wish to apply these to different contexts and settings. To mitigate the threat to internal validity concerning the author’s potential bias towards GT procedures, the coding activities and model representation were discussed and shared for insights with the experienced co-authors throughout the study. We observed the team practicing self-assignment and collected supporting artefacts (e.g. whiteboard images, screenshots from the management tools) from the team to verify the statements made by the team members during the interviews. Additionally, collecting same information from different team members also validated the integrity of the data. We have provided interview quotes as examples to mitigate the reporting bias. To mitigate the risk of possible inadequate description of study constructs , we adopted in-vivo and explanatory descriptive labels for codes, concepts and categories to capture the underlying phenomenon without losing relevant details.

6 Conclusion

Self-assignment is not an easy and straightforward practice to follow. In this paper, we demonstrated how self-assignment works in an agile environment. Through interviews with 42 software professionals representing 28 different agile teams from 23 different software companies, and applying the Strauss and Corbin GT procedures, we present the grounded theory of making self-assignment work in agile teams. The theory explains the context and causal conditions that give rise to the need for self-assignment e.g. natural part of agile transformation, issues with manager-driven assignment. It presents a set of facilitating conditions that mediate how self-assignment may be enabled e.g. appropriate task information, collective estimation, and task breakdown. It also presents a set of constraining conditions that mediate how self-assignment may be constrained e.g. urgent work, manager intervention which are overcome by a set of strategies applied by agile teams e.g. manager’s absence from task allocation sessions, flexible estimations, facilitating self-assignment. These strategies result in a set of consequences either positive, negative or both. The study also provides a set of recommendations which can be used by agile practitioners to make self-assignment a valuable practice in their settings. While more empirical work is in progress, it is believed that these findings are a first step towards addressing multiple facets of self-assignment in depth within software agile world and provides a platform for further work. Future work would investigate self-assignment from an individual versus manager’s perspective, such as exploring the factors software developers consider while self-assigning tasks, trade-offs to reconcile individual preferences with product goals.

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We would like to thank all the participants for their valuable inputs to this study. This study was conducted under approval from the Human Participants Ethics Committee at the University of Auckland.

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Masood, Z., Hoda, R. & Blincoe, K. How agile teams make self-assignment work: a grounded theory study. Empir Software Eng 25 , 4962–5005 (2020).

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  • Sponsored Cost Allocation Methodology Guidance
  • Originally Issued: January 2021
  • Responsible Office: Office for Sponsored Programs
  • PDF version of Sponsored Cost Allocation Methodology Guidance

Guidance Statement

Harvard University has established the following guidance for the allocation of costs that benefit two or more projects or activities in proportions that are not easily determined. Allocations are often necessary when Principal Investigators and administrators are assigning recurring or other costs to sponsored projects or activities in alignment with relative benefit.

Reason for Guidance

Harvard University must comply with the federal regulations in the Cost Accounting Standards (CAS) and the Office of Management and Budget Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards, 2 CFR 200, (Uniform Guidance). For costs benefitting a single project, the expense(s) should be allocated and directly charged to that project.

Uniform Guidance Subpart E §200.405 (d), Allocable Costs, stipulates that it is necessary to substantiate the proportional benefit of costs when costs benefit two or more projects.

“If a cost benefits two or more projects or activities in proportions that can be determined without undue effort or cost, the cost must be allocated to the projects based on the proportional benefit.” These costs should be simply apportioned to reflect the easily determined proportional benefit.

“If a cost benefits two or more projects or activities in proportions that cannot be determined because of the interrelationship of the work involved, then … the costs may be allocated or transferred to benefited projects on any reasonable documented basis.” When costs that benefit two or more projects or activities in proportions that are not easily determined, an allocation is necessary.

Allocation is one of several ways to charge expenses onto a project or activity:

Direct charging a direct cost based on an easily determined, measurable benefit to the project or activity.   

Distribution of a direct cost based on an easily determined, measurable relative benefit across several benefiting projects or activities.

Allocation of a direct cost based on relative benefit when the benefit is known, but not easily determined or not practically measurable across several funding sources. An allocation uses a reasoned basis to approximate the measurable benefit to distribute a direct cost.

Consider establishing a recharge center to charge benefiting funds based on actual costs and actual usage after the costs are incurred.  This approach should be used when there are multiple costs and the users or usage is unknowable at the time costs are incurred.

This document provides guidance on the use of an “Allocation Methodology” that meets the reasonableness and documentation requirements in the Uniform Guidance. It guides users to apply a reasoned basis to a recurring cost, or a recurring group of costs, according to the anticipated proportional benefit that advances the work of each project or activity.

Allocation Methodology Components & Criteria

A valid allocation methodology establishes a reasoned basis for apportioning or transferring costs in proportional benefit to two or more projects or activities.

There are three basic components of an allocation:

  • The percent of the cost charged to each project or activity
  • The method or reasoning used to derive that percentage
  • Accompanying documents and, where applicable approvals

At Harvard, valid allocation methodologies meet all of the following criteria:

  • Provide a reasonable linkage between the cost(s) incurred and the benefit to each individual project or activity
  • Are identified prior to the allocation of expenses to sponsored projects or activities 
  • Are documented with sufficient detail that a person unfamiliar with grants management would understand
  • Allow for the consistent treatment of costs that meet the criteria of the allocation methodology
  • Are reviewed periodically and adjusted as needed

Allocation Methodology Practices

Best practices.

  • Identify the basis of the allocation method in advance of purchasing, or at the time of ordering, the goods or services whenever possible to avoid the need for manual journals or cost transfers. 
  • Apply different allocation methodologies across a department or research group to best fit the expense type and allocation cost basis, rather than using the same methodology for all costs in the department.
  • Document the allocation methodology prior to, or concurrently with, the costs being incurred and allocated. Include the rationale for using the selected basis to approximate the relative benefit received by each project or activity.  (See additional documentation practices below.)
  • Review allocations regularly to ensure they continue to reflect proportional benefit.
  • Significant changes to factors used in the allocation cost basis will indicate the need to review the allocation components, or even the allocation methodology, outside of the regular review period. This review should include monitoring for changes in funding as sponsored projects or activities begin and end.
  • Obtain approval according to the tub and department practices.

Timing and Compliance Considerations

  • If costs are allocated and charged directly to sponsored projects or activities at the time of purchase, perform at least quarterly monitoring to ensure allocations continue to reflect relative benefit to all benefiting projects or activities 
  • Do not use sponsored funds to hold or suspend costs before they are allocated
  • Ensure that all held or suspended costs are fully allocated and that the amount allocated does not exceed the amount of costs held or suspended
  • Provide sufficient justification for all journal entries or cost transfers.

Unacceptable Practices

  • The following allocation practices are generally unacceptable because they do not meet University standards for a high degree of accuracy or do not consider actual relative benefit.
  • Rotating charges among sponsored projects or activities on a monthly basis without establishing that the rotation schedule reflects the relative benefit to each sponsored project or activity
  • Using any allocation methodology that is based only on available sponsored funds, budgets, or to avoid restrictions imposed by law, terms of the sponsored award, or for other reasons of convenience.
  • Describing an expense inaccurately to confound understanding of what the expense is and, therefore, how it benefits the project or activity.
  • Charging expenses exclusively to sponsored projects when the expense also supports non-sponsored activities.
  • Assigning charges to sponsored projects or activities in advance of the benefit to the project. (Refer to the Travel Policy for further information on acceptable cost practices for travel.)

Documentation Practices

  • Once the allocation methodology has been determined and approved, retain the documentation in the department or local units in accordance with sponsor terms, federal regulations and University records retention policy.
  • Document the type of costs to be included in the allocation methodology (e.g., consumable lab supplies, animal per diems, equipment service maintenance contracts, rent on non-federal awards)
  • Document the rationale or logic that supports the linkage between costs incurred and proportional benefit to all benefiting projects.
  • Document the determination or calculation of percentages used to allocate costs to all benefiting projects, including all supporting metrics, such as headcounts, FTEs, etc.
  • Document the process for updating the methodology , including the frequency of review, revision, and approval to ensure that costs remain allocated based on relative benefit to all benefiting projects.
  • If costs are accumulated in a suspense or holding account, document the account string and its timely and complete reconciliation.
  • If the allocation requires a calculation for each distribution, attach documentation supporting the calculation to each allocation journal entry.
  • If the allocation does not require a calculation for each distribution and uses a department-approved methodology, document the journal entry with support for the expenditure, as required by University policy.


This guidance is applicable to all Principal Investigators (PIs) and administrators at the University within all schools, units, divisions, University-wide initiatives, and centers, who are involved with the initiation, administration, and conduct of sponsored projects.

Roles and Responsibilities

All Harvard PIs, faculty and staff are responsible for monitoring the expenditures throughout the lifecycle of their sponsored projects to ensure that costs are allocated in accordance with this guidance.

Principal Investigators (PIs) have primary responsibility for ensuring compliance with federal, sponsor and university regulations as well as the monitoring of expenditures, timely review and correction of errors, and proper allocation of expenses. The PI should perform routine reviews of award expenditures and allocation methodologies to ensure alignment with relative benefit.

Grant Managers and Department/Local Level Managing Units (individuals responsible for account monitoring/management) assist PIs in the timely review and reconciliation of expenditures, including reconciliation of suspense/holding accounts, while offering valid cost basis options for an allocation methodology. Administrators should familiarize themselves with this guidance and be prepared to provide options to the PI if more than one allocation cost basis appears to fit the circumstance. Local managing units should establish the valid allocation methodologies and maintain adequate documentation in accordance with the University retention policy, with approvals where applicable, as well as support for individual allocations.

School/Tub-level officials provide guidance and are responsible for ensuring that local units follow any tub-defined policies and accompanying procedures. Schools may develop additional approval processes and perform routine follow-up, as they deem necessary.

Office for Sponsored Programs (OSP) is responsible for publishing this guidance and related materials, and providing additional guidance and clarification, when applicable. This guidance is updated through the Operations and Policy Committee (OPC).


Allocation methodology.

The reasoned basis used to approximate the proportional benefit to benefiting activities when the relative benefit cannot be easily determined. Allocation methodologies are used in allocations to support the assignment of costs.

The units that represent the approximation of relative benefit over which the costs are allocated. The cost basis is part of the allocation methodology used in the allocation.

  • Appendix A: Allocation Methodology Examples  (PDF)
  • Appendix B: Allocation Methodology Calculation – Personnel Effort Calculation  (Excel)
  • Appendix C: Allocation Methodology Calculation – Headcount  (Excel)

Related Policies and Guidance

  • Cost Transfer Policy 
  • Effort Reporting Policy
  • Internal Billing Transactions
  • Record Retention (General Records Schedule)
  • ROPPA (Responsibilities of Purchasers, Preparers and Approvers Policy)
  • Sponsored Expenditures Guidelines
  • Sponsored Financial Reporting and Closeout Policy
  • Transaction Monitoring

To demonstrate compliance with UG, this document provides various resources for department/local units to utilize for their expenditures. Administrators are encouraged to discuss with their school/tub official prior to placing an allocation expense onto a sponsored project if an allocation methodology does not utilize or is not covered by this guidance.

The Sponsored Cost Allocation Methodology Info Session (video, login required)

School Contact List

  • FAS/SEAS: Research Administration Services (RAS)
  • HKS: Research Administration Office (RAO)
  • HMS/HSDM Research Finance: Office of Research Administration (ORA)
  • HSPH: Kay Sullivan , Associate Director, Research Operations
  • HGSE: Tiffany L. Cott , Director, Sponsored Projects
  • Wyss: mailto:[email protected] , Director of Sponsored Projects

Revision History

  • January 2021: New
  • Absence Management Guidance
  • Administrative and Clerical Salaries on Federal Awards
  • At-Risk Account Guidance
  • Capital Equipment: Summary of Policy for Capital Equipment in Schools with Sponsored Research
  • Consulting or Related Service Agreements
  • Cost Sharing Policy
  • Cost Transfer Policy
  • Data Use Agreements
  • Entering Preproposals into the Grants Management Application Suite (GMAS) Guidance
  • eRA Commons Registration Requirements for Senior/Key Personnel
  • Establishing an Internal Grant-Making Program
  • Federal Work Study on Sponsored Awards Policy
  • Fixed Price Residual Balances Guidance
  • Guidance on Charging Approved Family and Medical Leaves to Sponsored Awards
  • Foreign Awards Paid in Foreign Currency Guidance
  • Gift vs. Sponsored Award Policy
  • Indirect Costs - Policy for the Application of Indirect Costs to Sponsored Awards
  • Intellectual Property
  • Interest Income Paid on Non-Federal Sponsored Funds
  • Interfaculty Involvement (IFI) Guidance
  • International Collaborations and Activities
  • International Projects Guidance
  • NIH Public Access Policy
  • Negotiating and Signing Authority for Agreements Related to Research
  • Guidance Regarding Individuals Outside of the United States Being Paid with Sponsored Funding
  • On-Campus and Off-Campus Indirect Cost Rates Policy on Federal Sponsored Awards
  • Participant Support Costs Guidance
  • Participation Agreement and Visiting Participation Agreement
  • Procurement
  • Program Income Guidance
  • Proposal Submission Deadlines
  • Provost Criteria
  • Publications
  • Retention of Research Data and Materials
  • Service Centers: Academic Service Center Policy
  • Severance on Sponsored Awards
  • Closeout and Reporting Policy for Sponsored Awards
  • Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Collaborations: Guidance on Conflict Management Considerations
  • Sponsored Expenditures Guidance
  • Sponsored Travel Guidance
  • Stipends on Sponsored Awards
  • Subrecipient Monitoring Policy
  • Subrecipient vs. Contractor Guidance
  • Tuition Policy


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