When Project Task Assignments Go Bad

Proper project task assignments serve an important function. By formally making an individual responsible for an activity, the team knows that someone with the necessary skills and expertise is carrying out the task. When assigning tasks, PMs can also monitor workloads so key activities aren’t delayed by other priorities.

task assignments

The entire process sounds straightforward enough, but as PMs find themselves with more responsibilities to juggle and a growing project workload to manage, the actions related to task assignments and monitoring their execution are sometimes truncated. Serious issues begin to appear when the team takes on more complex initiatives, or as projects begin to overlap and resources are suddenly stretched across more than one effort.

If your team is experiencing problems keeping a project’s tasks on track or things are falling through the cracks, consider if you’re inadvertently missing some important steps in the task assignment process.

One issue that’s surprisingly common is when a PM assigns a task but doesn’t tell anyone. In organizations that run similar types of projects over and over, PMs might assume that the person who executed a task for the last project will automatically take on similar activities in the next effort. This assumption sets the stage for all kinds of problems, so even when the assignment of a task seems like a given, it’s still critical to get buy-in from everyone who will be completing the project’s activities.

On the flip side, PMs sometimes delay assigning a task, either because the activity isn’t urgent or because they’re hoping to match the timing of the task’s execution with whichever team member has the lightest workload at the time. This strategy sounds efficient but it can backfire spectacularly if the PM forgets to assign the task or that “light workload” never materializes. Then everyone is suddenly scrambling to fit an additional activity into their schedule. Knowing that tasks can be reassigned if necessary, everything in the master plan should have at least a tentative home at the outset of the project.

If a PM assigns a task but doesn’t have a mechanism to maintain accountabilityas the project moves forward, it’s a recipe for disaster. Giving a task to an individual or a small functional group is just the beginning. The team needs to be confident that activities are being completed on time throughout the entire project lifecycle, since there may be other tasks that can’t be executed until earlier work is done. Ongoing accountability ensures that work flows from one phase to the next without delays.

Project schedules are dynamic and tasks may be reassigned to another person for any number of reasons, such as smoothing out resource conflicts and demand peaks. This allows the team to take advantage of a lull in one person’s workload to ease a bottleneck elsewhere. Problems arise when aPM transfers an activity to a new individual without communicating that information to the rest of the team. This leaves other people with outdated information and could create challenges for anyone trying to manage an adjacent or dependent task.

In other cases, team members might move an activity from one person’s bucket of work to another’s if the original individual has an unexpected change in their role or availability—they need to take time off to deal with a family medical emergency, for example, or they receive a promotion that no longer leaves them with enough time to execute their project activities. If these task assignments are reassigned without letting the PM know, everything may still be completed eventually but status updates and other monitoring functions could get out of whack.

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