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If Everyone Owns the Task, No One Owns the Task

A group of people can own an outcome. A group of people can own a responsibility, or even a set of responsibilities. But a group of people can’t own a task. Tasks with no owners are orphaned, and they suffer from having no owner.

If a group of people own a task, then no one owns that task. If it isn’t clear who is responsible to complete the task, then the task won’t get done, or it will only be done sporadically.

I see this problem especially when a task is transactional or when a client is transactional. Someone needs to make a call and follow up with a transactional client, but because the client is transactional, it isn’t assigned to an individual. Instead, it is assigned to a group. Someone is supposed to make the call. All of the group members assume someone else will make the call, so no one makes the call.

Because the task is orphaned, the client is also orphaned and neglected.

But the problem of a task having no real owner isn’t limited to transactional clients. Sometimes transactional tasks that need to be completed for strategic clients get missed simply because the task is transactional. Even if the task is mundane and transactional, it doesn’t mean that a strategic client doesn’t need the task completed, that it isn’t part of the value that you create. Maybe someone needs to run a simple report each week. It may not seem like a big enough task that someone needs to own the task, but without someone owning the task, it is easily overlooked or forgotten.–especially when there is more important work that needs done.

Missing the smaller, transactional tasks can put your larger, more strategic objectives at risk. Someone needs to own them.

Have you sat through a meeting where tasks were identified without a decision being made as to who owns the task? Ever sat through the follow up meeting where it was discovered that the tasks weren’t completed? When tasks are identified, the owner of that task also needs to be identified. Commitments need to be made and kept, regardless of how trivial or mundane the task.

Orphaned tasks don’t get completed. Each task needs an owner, someone responsible for ensuring that it is completed. If everyone owns a task, then no one owns it.


Why are transactional tasks overlooked?

Have you ever missed completing a transactional task that put a more strategic outcome or client at risk?

How do you determine who owns a transactional task? How do you ensure that the tasks are completed?

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  • AmyMccTobin

    Sometimes I think you are actually in my head.  I am the President of a non-profit board full of passionate VOLUNTEERS.  THIS lack of ownership has been a recurring problem for years. Once elected, I started assigning tasks, setting goals, and most importantly DEADLINES.  It didn’t go over so well with some.

    My message: we are here to accomplish GREAT things. Great things don’t happen if no one is manning any of the dinghys.  I’ll man the ship, but we need teams rowing in the dinghys too. 

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      I am watching you, Amy!

      Funny how a lot of people like to talk about ideas, about what needs done, but when the work starts getting divvied up, some big talkers jump ship.

      Your message is spot on!

  • Doug Rice

    I believe there’s a term economists have for this: “tragedy of the commons.” Nobody assumes responsibility by default. By default, people always assume someone else will handle it. Great post!

  • Yolk Recruitment

    So true.  As Doug said ‘nobody assumes responsibility’ it can been in the most minor of task – such as a communal kitchen where usually the responsibility to keep it clean is shared between the workforce usually resulting in it not being cleaned. You need to assign responsibility and ownership to task.

  • CMW

    use task management software, and forget abut deadlines.

  • Pingback: Task Management Requires Individual Ownership | OpenView Labs

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  • Sahil Parikh

    We incorporated this concept into our project collaboration app DeskAway ( Although people still have issues with assigning a task to more than one person! It is always better to have once person fully accountable for a task and have others cc’ed to the task so that they know what is happening.

  • EL

    The “task” concept is one that must have been born inside of me.  There isn’t a plan in life that does not require tasks in order to put that plan into action.  When you get to the office and begin to grow a plan, you realize that not everyone is “created equal” and there are those who cannot identify, initiate and execute a task to fully realize the goal. We can’t expect people to own a task if they cannot create one. What we can expect is for tasks to be created by others, delegate the work and have the expectation for it to be done.  At least that is my thought for today.  Many people think those who create tasks are not creative and have limited vision. I say that to be truly exceptional at handling the task process, one can be a great forecaster with true vision and have an enormous creative force.