(This post first appeared on the Go Free Range blog.)

At first glance, the idea of assigning tasks at random may seem a little crazy, and perhaps even a bit scary. Why would you even try it?

To understand why, we need to look at some of the common, counter-productive behaviours that you can find in any team.

Comfort zone

In any self-organising group engaged in a common enterprise, there's often a tendency for people to take on the tasks they're most familiar with.

We might be making a conscious decision to choose the task on which we think we can be most productive. Or we might unconsciously just be trying to stay within our own personal comfort zone.

Lowest common denominator

Less desirable tasks are often left to the person who has the lowest tolerance for the consequences of the task remaining un-done. Or worse, these tasks are left un-done.

A classic example of this is what happens to the washing up in a student house where the dirty dishes accumulate until someone's personal mess threshold is reached. Often it's the same person who ends up doing the washing up time and time again.

Assignment bias

Even with a manager assigning tasks, there's a big temptation to assign tasks to the person whose skills best match the task at hand; or the person who is most reliable or fast at completing tasks.

However, whatever the strategy, there's often a systematic bias such that particular individuals are more likely to end up with particular types of work. While this works well in many contexts, I think it's worth being aware of some of the consequences of this bias.

Bus number

The more specialised each member of a team becomes, the less incentive there is for them to share knowledge about the their area of expertise, because nobody else needs to know. This can lead to a team which is dependent on specific people to perform specific tasks. And then if someone is away or leaves unexpectedly, the group can be stuck up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

The eXtreme Programming community talks about a team's Bus Number, the number of team members who have to get hit by a bus to lose some important skill or information from the team. The higher the Bus Number, the more resilient the team.

Local optimisation

Any kind of assignment bias can lead to an unequal burden being placed on members of the team and this can lead to a feeling of unfairness, a sense of injustice. Clearly this is not a healthy situation for a group that wants to remain functional and cohesive.

So while it may seem like the most effective thing to do is to pick up the task which you think best suits you, this is really just a short-term local optimisation. It's likely that to optimise the operation of the group as whole over the long term, you should pick up a task which you don't know much about or which you typically find difficult.

So how can we avoid these problems?

Embracing chaos

At Free Range, all four of us would describe ourselves as software developers, but we have a company to run and there are many non-software tasks to be done e.g. talking to prospective clients, reading NDAs, negotiating contracts, submitting invoices, keeping the books, paying bills, cleaning the office, watering the plants, and mulling the wine.

Some time ago we realised we could encourage each other to take equal responsibility for operation of the company by injecting an element of randomness into task assignment. And thus Harmonia was born. Harmonia is an application which automatically distributes tasks to members of a team randomly, but fairly. This way we spread knowledge across the team and reduce the chances of any one person shouldering too much of the burden.

Getting started

If you're interested in giving it a go, sign up to Harmonia and invite your colleagues to your team. Pick one or two tasks that need to be carried out regularly and add them to Harmonia.

Don't worry if the task descriptions are not yet well-defined; you can always add a note to the task description to say that whoever is first assigned should expand the description to document what needs doing for the next person.

It's worth making it clear to your colleagues that just because you've been assigned a task doesn't mean you have to do it all on your own; it just means you are responsible for making sure it gets done and for improving the description for the next person.

Still not convinced?

You may be sceptical that this applies to you and your organisation, but we believe that it has many more applications than you might first think. If you're still not sure, we'd love to hear about your thoughts or reservations. Please leave a comment below or drop us an email.

And remember, chaos is your friend!