Ownership and Responsibilities

One Owner

For every work item, be it an issue, bug, feature, deliverable, etc., there will be exactly one owner.

In some circles this is known as “one throat to choke”. The owner is not necessarily the one to do the work. In fact, most of the time they are not doing all of the work alone. The work item may also be passed to someone else more appropriate, but at any time there is exactly one owner (if a work item is passed, the receiving person must acknowledge that they are now the owner).

Not having an owner is expected in the proposal stage (e.g. when ideas or “stories” are being created), but as soon as something becomes a deliverable is has exactly one owner.

A common mistake is where communications (e.g. emails) are addressed to more than one person but the sender expects the work to be done. Worse yet, they assume the more people they address it to, the greater the chance that someone will “pick it up”. For example, when an email is addressed to multiple people (Dear Joe and Jane, Please deliver ABC to XYZ …) the sender may assume it will be done, but Joe thinks Jane will do it and Jane thinks Joe will. Multiple addressees is discouraged, since the sender may incorrectly assume that the work will be completed without actually assigning an owner. If a communication (e.g. email) is meant to be a directive to accomplish a task (e.g. from a manager to an employee) it should be addressed to a specific person and the owner should explicitly acknowledge that they are the owner. Of course, others may be “cc’d” and this is entirely appropriate to suggest others that may end up helping.

It is appropriate to ask a group for someone to volunteer to be the owner, but it’s not a work item until someone explicitly agrees to be the owner. When an owner is assigned this should be communicated to the group.

In the end, each work item is owned by exactly one person.


Each person should have the smallest number of responsibilities possible, preferably one.

Responsibilities need to be described at the highest level possible. This gives an employee a larger, more impactful, and clear area that they own and concentrate on (see above on “One Owner”). Employees will be less fragmented and distracted. Reducing the number of responsibility items also makes managing people and projects less complex.

Often people incorrectly try to amass the largest number of deliverables possible so that it looks like they are contributing more (and more than their peers). However, this increases organizational overhead since it increase the number of items to be tracked. Organizations must resist the temptation to measure output merely in terms of number of “things” someone is doing; rather measure their impact to the organization.