Make one person responsible 24 Aug 2005

77 comments Latest by SM Kelly

We get a decent number of Basecamp requests to assign a to-do or milestone to multiple people (in Basecamp you can only assign to-dos and milestones to one person at a time). People say “We have 4 or 5 people working on this to-do and we want to assign it to everyone so we make sure it gets done.” And that’s the problem: The more people you make responsible for something, the less chance there is for it to get done.

The more people responsible for something, the more finger pointing, the more blame deflection, the less direct responsibility. Making multiple people responsible for something simply diffuses the responsibility, and diffused responsibility generally leads in one of two directions — stagnation or mediocrity.

So, when you have something to do as a team, make one person responsible for a specific result. There’s always one person more senior or more invested or more experienced. Make that person fully responsible and watch things get done quicker — and better.

77 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Peter Parkes 24 Aug 05

Every time I come up with a to-do item with multiple responsibility, I find it useful to stop and think - “How can I subdivide this?”

It seems to work most of the time; if you’ve got something which needs doing by more than one person, the chances are you can break it down into smaller, more specific, individual responsibilities.

DaleV 24 Aug 05

Yes. Yes. Agree.

Mike Bulman 24 Aug 05

Unless I am horribly mistaken, 37signals is a software development company, not a business advisory firm.

I realize this blog isn’t necessarily specific to software development (and to be clear, its not the blog I am targeting), but if the reason for not allowing multiple people to be assigned to a todo or milestone is as stated above, that just seems weird to me.

Basecamp is an extremely free-form kind of product. I’m sure many people use it for many different things in many different ways. If I spent the time, I could come up with plenty of very useful and efficient methods that involved assigning multiple people to a task. And I’m sure many people already have.

So is basing product development on your own business methods rather than the customer right? I say no.

Mathew Patterson 24 Aug 05

What do you base a design decision on, if you assume everyone will want to do everything with your software? How do you decide what to leave in and what to drop out?

Eloy Anzola 24 Aug 05

Yep. Stupid users telling me what features they’d like in my application. How dare they.

Stupid paying clients. My way is the right way. All companies should change their policies if they want to use my application.

Multiple people or a small team assigned to one task! Idiots!

Eloy 24 Aug 05

sorry… could not resist… =)

Jared Christensen 24 Aug 05

I can understand how several people can be assigned to a specific task, but under what management system is it smart to make all of them able to say “this task is done”?

Deela 24 Aug 05

I couldn’t agree more with your responsibility assessment and heaps of businesses would benefit by implementing exactly that, but don’t you think that by not intergrating that small request into your product, you’re forcing others to work how you work? Work styles differ from company to company and most are far less efficient than they could be. However, that being said, I don’t know that it’s all that wise to assume to know what is best for another company.
Obviously, if they don’t like it, they don’t have to use your product but it would seem that it’s a rather small request.
Just my .02

Matt T. 24 Aug 05

“Stupid paying clients. My way is the right way. All companies should change their policies if they want to use my application.”

Sounds like the Joel syndrome to me.

Mike Bulman 24 Aug 05


In this case, it’s not a matter of deciding what to leave in or drop out. 37signals has a product. They left out a feature for a certain reason. They recieved a “decent number” of requests (enough to blog about) to add this feature. They are still choosing to leave the feature out.

This isn’t a matter of deciding what people will use or not when developing a product, but denying customer requests based on a personal belief.

Peter Cooper 24 Aug 05

A cute idea, but, well, that’s just now how things are done in the enterprise. Great for small, agile companies though.

Mathew Patterson 24 Aug 05

This isn�t a matter of deciding what people will use or not when developing a product, but denying customer requests based on a personal belief.

I’m pretty sure they have blogged about refusing requests on this issue because of added interface complexity too, so perhaps it is not just on personal belief.

A good question though - what are valid reasons for making design decisions? You can’t just implement everything people have asked for, that’s the path to disaster.

JF 24 Aug 05

If we listened and added everything everyone wanted, no one would want our product. Believe me.

We’d have comprehensive time tracking, comprehensive billing, comprehensive meeting scheduling, comprehensive calendaring, comprehensive dependency task systems, comprehensive instant message chatting, comprehensive wiki functionality, etc.

Yet, the #1 requests on all the customer surveys we do is: KEEP IT SIMPLE. THAT’S WHY WE LOVE BASECAMP, IT’S SIMPLE.

So, it IS the role of the software development company to be the filter. Not everything everyone suggests is the right suggestion. We listen to all requests, we consider all requests, but “every request the customer makes better be added to the product or it means you don’t listen to your customers” isn’t the way we view the world.

And the other thing is this: It’s CRITICAL that the development company love their product. We wouldn’t love our product if it was filled with a bunch of stuff we don’t agree with. We have a vision that we think a big enough market shares with us. People outside that market may not find Basecamp appealing and that’s OK with us.

Every company makes decisions about what their product is going to be. Basecamp is not all things to all people and it will never be all things to all people.

Anonymous Coward 24 Aug 05

A cute idea, but, well, that�s just now how things are done in the enterprise.

Ah ha! And that’s why things don’t get done in the enterprise!

JohnO 24 Aug 05


This is a good decision by 37Signals. While on the surface, it might seem they could be destroying sales because they are missing this feature, they aren’t. Suppose they build the feature. Suppose lots of people use the feature. Suppose milestones slip because no one took person responsibility because of the other people listed on the milestones. Now management comes down, saying this product doesn’t work, we still slipped. Now they lose a customer.

Granted that might not happen in 75% of cases (We all like to think we don’t miss milestones), but it is a decision they made. They are willing to say, if this feature is a deal-breaker, then we’re sorry.

Headline should read: Jason & Co Steal a Page from Joel -

The customer isn’t always right

Michael 24 Aug 05

Just because someone is willing to pay for something doesn’t mean they should get it. The problem with bad software is their are lot’s of features that when used make life more difficult. Good software shouldn’t be about providing ways to make life more difficult. It should make life easier, and sometimes that means not providing certain features. Wouldn’t it be convenient to place a little button next to the Apple Menu (or Start Button) that when clicked would format your hard drive. Just think how convenient that would be when you want to format your hard drive?

Raena Armitage 24 Aug 05

under what management system is it smart to make all of them able to say �this task is done�?

You can’t think of a single thing at all in your workplace that could conceivably be done to completion by any one of several people? At all? Not even the piddly stuff?

Under what management system does one have THAT level of wankery? ‘Sarah and Tom and Harry and Miguel, all from front-of-house, have all signed off on the fact that Zanna picked up teh milk for the tea room today.’

Mathew Patterson 24 Aug 05

I still remember the pain of ‘group assignments’ at University and school, where you get stuck with one person who doesn’t want to do anything…but you all get the same mark.

Mike Bulman 24 Aug 05

Simple is fine. I love simple.

But offering a business suggestion in place of the “simple” truth ;) is sketchy.

Percy 24 Aug 05

I understand and agree with Jason, but only after his comment after the original post. After reading the blog entry, I was quite furious with the attitude portrayed by 37signals. Basically, you’re telling us how we should run our business � if that were how the world worked, all of our clients would use Safari on a Mac (no flamewar please).

Basically my comment is that your original post lacked a credible explanation for why the feature should not be implemented. Keep is simple, stupid, sure � but don’t treat your customers like they run their businesses in a stupid manner.

Rich 24 Aug 05

Peter Parkes said, �How can I subdivide this?�

Why not explore the possibility of adding assignable sub-tasks within a task? This way, the primary task is still assigned to one user, who can then assign sub-tasks to other users. Ultimately, the primary task holder is still responsible.

I’m not saying you should do exactly this, but exploring it’s feasibilty within your product may give you a better product. If it doesn’t work with your vision, chuck it.

Paul Livingstone 24 Aug 05

A sensible idea, however posted in a rather ‘preachy’ and arrogant tone.

Kevin Johnson 24 Aug 05

Irrespective of the management practicality of assigning �to-do� items to more than one individual, Independent Software Developers (ISD’s) do not have to live in the world that many of us do, or at least the world of in-house corporate designers/developers.

If ISD�s don�t agree with the requests of their customers, and are still able to turn a profit, they don�t have to listen to them. As long as there are clients to maintain revenues, such a philosophy can work, and can even be profitable.

What a nice arrangement, however, this can be quite a balancing act to maintain. Unfortunately, most of us, likely even 37S, eventually bows down to at least a few of the requests clients suggest, even if we don�t always agree with them. You think?

Dan Boland 24 Aug 05

Obviously, if they don�t like it, they don�t have to use your product but it would seem that it�s a rather small request.

See, that’s the thing, I don’t think it would be small. I’m not really sure how Basecamp works (I’ve only tinkered with it once several months ago), but I know from a database perspective, it changes the way to-do assignments have to be stored. And from that, it changes the way those assignments have to be displayed. And then, who knows how many other mechanisms in the application have to be altered to accommodate this new feature. And for what?

I still remember the pain of �group assignments� at University and school, where you get stuck with one person who doesn�t want to do anything�but you all get the same mark.

When I was in college, the way my professors got around that problem was that not only did he/she grade each group on their project as a whole, but the group members graded each other, and both grades were factored in to what each student ended up receiving.

Word Police 24 Aug 05

Kevin Johnson, “irrespective” isn’t a word.

Anonymous Coward 24 Aug 05


S: (adv) regardless, irrespective, disregardless, no matter, disregarding (in spite of everything; without regard to drawbacks) “he carried on regardless of the difficulties”

Paul Watson 24 Aug 05

Part of BaseCamp’s brilliance is that 37Signals stamped their way of working on it. Sure, it is not for everyone but apps that are for everyone invariably become for nobody as they sink under a ton of pretty features, pretty useless features.

And we have choice, there are other PM apps out there.

Elizabeth 24 Aug 05

Who’s your daddy?

Why 37signals is, of course.

Elizabeth 24 Aug 05

@Paul Watson

I think you’re drinking the kool-aide. Your comments don’t stand up to basic scrutiny.

First of all, is BaseCamp really “brilliant”? It may be a good implementation (or it may not be). But “brilliant”?

Second, your claim that “apps that are for eeryone invariably become for nobody…”. I think of Microsoft Word, and they keep adding more and more features, which I agree are bloat. And yet, people still keep on using it, and many demand it for inter-organization communication.

Mathew Patterson 24 Aug 05

And yet, people still keep on using it, and many demand it for inter-organization communication.

I think that is more to do with ‘corporate standards’ and resistance to change (and change is expensive!) than to do with the technical or design brilliance of Word.

The words ‘Cash Cow’ spring to mind.

Peter Parkes 24 Aug 05

Rich: Why not explore the possibility of adding assignable sub-tasks within a task?

I tend to use milestones for the ‘big’ tasks and to-do lists for the little ones, but yes, this might be a feature worth exploring � I know a people who love OmniOutliner for the Mac because of its ability to manage hierarchical to-do lists.

Paul Watson 24 Aug 05

Hi Elizabeth,

I use BaseCamp daily, something I cannot say I ever did with Microsoft Project or any other PM. Is that not brilliant? I am thrilled to finally have a PM I use rather than just have good intentions of using.

And I hate to even be discussing this but the kool-aid barb is not helping. I don’t appreciate it and I would never make the assumption that you did not choose an application for good reasons.

take care,

Ed Knittel 24 Aug 05

@Elizabeth - Re:Matthew Patterson…

The number of people in a corporate environment (oh, like say the hospital I work in) who know how to use Microsoft Word is appallingly low yet it’s installed on every computer becuase corporate says it must. I’ve found that when comparing a software company and the users of said software company’s products it is often best not to use Microsoft and its users as an example. Good software often comes out of having used Microsoft products for so long that it becomes increasingly difficult to effectively function in life.

In the hospital most people should not use Microsoft Word when a simple program like Notepad is all they really need to accomplish their task. They should also not be allowed to type up a message in MS Word and then attach that file to an email without saying anything in the message of their email. Yet, it happens over and over and…

Just because people can do things doesn’t mean they’re right. Sometimes it just means they’re retarded.

Ben Whitehouse 24 Aug 05

We JUST had this conversation this morning about our Basecamp and came to the same end that one person should be responsible for individual tasks.

This entry would be better suited to the default message when you create a to-do list in a project in Basecamp.

Our office standard is to create a separate to-do list for larger to-do’s it keeps them separate and reminds one of the greater object of the to-do’s… thus you have sub-tasks.

(One feature which I think would improve my understanding of BC would be to be able to see all users to-do’s and to be able to add to-do’s directly into the main dashboard to-do area. Often in my firm we are working on multiple projects and add a slew of to-do’s at once… that would be neat!)

Love Basecamp, have issues, but still love it.

JohnO 24 Aug 05

“Rich: Why not explore the possibility of adding assignable sub-tasks within a task?”

This is why:

“Ben:Our office standard is to create a separate to-do list for larger to-do�s it keeps them separate and reminds one of the greater object of the to-do�s� thus you have sub-tasks.”

I also use Basecamp daily. Technologically, it isn’t brilliant. What is brilliant is the clarity of the UI design.

Jough Dempsey 24 Aug 05

So, because something is a little more difficult to implement, you tell your customers that they’re wrong in wanting something, and it’s not a problem with your software?

Of course you can’t implement every single customer request, but you CAN make it an option. You can already assign an individual to a task, and if you designed your db right (3NF or better) adding other individuals to a task should be a piece of cake. When anyone assigned the task completes it, it’s completed.

Trouble ticket systems usually have a “pool” of tasks where no one individual is assigned a task until they take possession of it. That works well when all of the individuals who can/may complete the task are peers. It’s such a useful and common need that until reading this post I didn’t even realise that Basecamp didn’t offer this ability.

JF 24 Aug 05

So, because something is a little more difficult to implement, you tell your customers that they�re wrong in wanting something, and it�s not a problem with your software?

This doesn’t have anything to do with the degree of difficulty, it has to do what we believe is right for this specific product. We’re not saying anyone is “wrong” — we’re saying just not in this product at this time. If it’s a deal breaker then maybe Basecamp isn’t the product for them. That’s all.

I’ll say it again: At the end of the day it’s up to the software developer to include the features they think are the right features for their product. We listen, we learn, and we make decisions.

…should be a piece of cake

The red flag should always go up when anyone says this. There are a million things that are “a piece of cake” and there are a million people who want their own slice.

Brad 24 Aug 05

Someone is giving out cake?

Scott M. 24 Aug 05

Absolutely spot-on, JF. I agree responsibility should always rest with one person. I also agree that while 37s should listen to and weigh customer feedback, ultimately it’s your decision when shaping your product. I’ve been part of a company which tried create a product that was all things to all people — altering it based on each individual customer request. What a nightmare.

Shaun Andrews 24 Aug 05

I just want to be able to view all todos/milestones for a specific company….

A larger dream would be able to view all projects for a company…

James 24 Aug 05

If you want what basecamp might be with more features, and done well, you’d do well to check out Jira.

alex 24 Aug 05

Every project management system out their allows multiple assignees so I’m sure they thought long and hard about whether or not that was a good feature.

Dan Boland 24 Aug 05

Man, Dot Project looks like holy hell. It looks pretty complicated, but sheesh, can’t it at least not look like shit?

Justin Pardee 24 Aug 05

When I need to assign more than one person to a specific task I create a new _private_ To-Do list labeled *Int: Task Name*

I then assign the different “sub-tasks” to the people responsible for them.

This keeps me visible and accountable as the primary responsible party (and point of contact) on the To-Do lists our clients see.

Plus, most of our clients don’t need (or want) to see hundreds of to-do items that aren’t relevant to them.

I find this has worked very well for our needs.

TimL 24 Aug 05

And it seems people are missing the point of this post right out of the gate.

First.. I would like to see an example of a “task” that needs to be assigned to many people.

Second.. Whats wrong with a little business assistance along with a product. In this case, I would assume 37Signals has looked into the methods of managing products/tasks from many different angles to determine what the “most successful” method is. By writing a web application around that method, they also have a position to enforce it. I would imagine (and know of) many companies out there that *are* managing their projects incorrectly (if they know it or not), these same people are either looking for a better way or wouldn’t use basecamp to begin with.

Third.. In my past I have uncovered a truth behind bad project management and responsibility assignment and found that the *actual* responsibility itself scares people. I don’t know if people think the consequences of failing/not completing a task would be so unbearable that it is worth defering the responsibility or even lying.

Just my thoughts.. I just don’t understand why people are so directly against 37Signals.. They simply offered a new idea, new concepts to old processes, many of which needed an overhaul. Whats wrong with how *they* do it? It is just that.. how *they* do it.. Is it that shocking to be able to turn away customers? If you can be that selective about your customer base then you are doing something right!

Ben Askins 24 Aug 05

Couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on this Jason.

Don Schenck 24 Aug 05

Tell ‘em to buy Microsoft Project if they want software that will support their screwy (non) management style.

JF 24 Aug 05

Don, I think you just told ‘em!

Ed 24 Aug 05

The issue reminds me of a quote by - I believe - Lee Iacocca…
“There is no future for products that everyone likes a little, only for products that someone likes a lot.”

hextor 25 Aug 05

I agree “generally” it makes sense to asign a task to one person, but then probably you havent been involved in a really complex project. Take, for example a post merger integration.

You got several tasks where you need responsibles from both units there and on-board as not to signalize either a hierachie which doesnt exist, neither letting one of the divisions slip off in their integration plan.

James 25 Aug 05

Softly softly catchy monkey.

Ian 25 Aug 05

Imagine it’s 1:49AM Friday morning and your to-do list for this week still has a scrollbar. Are you going to even look a the ones assigned to you _and_ someone else?

Ged 25 Aug 05

When Basecamp finally obtained the most essential feature, a task was assigned to four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.

Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.

Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job.

Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.

It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done

Wesley Walser 25 Aug 05

Or you could hire honest people who get things done…

Don Schenck 25 Aug 05

If you are working for a company where multiple people are responsible for one task …

… Flee! Run! And Don’t Look Back!

Seriously. Sheesh.

James 26 Aug 05

Is it really crazy to think work might come in to a pool? I’m not sure if it’s specific to basecamp, - but say you want to give a department the ability to raise ‘general support requests’. This could easily be assigned to a group call ‘triage’. Maybe this is the same as ‘unassigned’ though.

Also, - when will this thread die? :)

Joe Van Dyk 28 Aug 05

A cute idea, but, well, that�s just now how things are done in the enterprise. Great for small, agile companies though.

What the hell is “the enterprise”?

me 05 Sep 05

“we get a lot of requests for this partiocular feature. but here is why the people desiring that feature are Wrong:”


Bob 10 Sep 05

On the home page it says:

Basecamp makes it easy to…
Share, assign, & prioritize to-do tasks


Apparently not.

Lisa 14 Sep 05

I agree with the logic for most group projects.

However, as a director, I need software that will only allow simple GROUP project management software, but INDIVIDUAL management software. This includes assigning tasks such as
Updating professional development plans
Having everyone test and play with this software we may (well, or may not) adopt

To do this in basecamp, I have to make 12 to-do entries for EVERY task. There is simply no time.

Alex Bunardzic 19 Sep 05

Once again, corporate mindset chokes when presented with a common-sense, non-bureaucratic reasoning.

What bureaucratic minds regularly fail to see is that people use tools to help them do the work. People don’t use tools in order to avoid working.

In this case, if people choose to use Basecamp as a tool to help them do their managing, they shouldn’t expect the tool to do the work for them. That would be utterly stupid. It would be like me using GarageBand and expecting it to compose a chart topping hit song on my behalf.

If a manger assigns a task to some resource, it is that manager’s job to keep an eye on it. Yes, the manager should use a suitable tool that will assist in tracking resources, but the real work still resides with the human manager. Using a tool as an excuse to avoid work is lame, to say the least.

In addition, a machine (or, a device) should never be used in order to assign blame on people. Let people assign the blame on other people, let people point fingers. That’ll make them thin twice before acting. The machine is only a servant that follows the orders.

Josh 30 Jan 06

The offical 37 signals response “And that�s the problem: The more people you make responsible for something, the less chance there is for it to get done.

Ignores the fact that some tasks require multiple people to work on them. We call this a “Team”. Perhaps a solution would be the ability to create groups or teams from a selection of people. Then a milestone could be given to this team.

One could say that adding a company could achieve this, but then you would have to create a variety of sub-companys.

I still think that allowing milestones to be assigned to multiple people would help in tracking the schedules of people working on different projects.

Dan 02 Mar 06

What was the post about??

Norm Johnson 17 May 06

I can work with this for the sake of simplicity and accountability. Have you seen how convoluted PM systems like eproject can become? This is a good fit for small biz.

Andy Lee 08 Aug 06

We are dying to have email notification & reminders available for SPECIFIC groups of people that we choose on our milestones. Is there a way to create GROUPS or something that allows other members on our team to be updated or reminded of milestones….besides just the responsible single party or an entire company? We have under 30 employees, but I want only 7 to be reminded/notified via email.

How is this possible?

JRK 09 Aug 06

IMHO, this is a non-issue.
I agree with the philosophy of assigning responsiblility to one person.
However, for those who need to spread it, simply add a new “person” to your list that represents the “team” you wish to assign. Something like “SupplyProcurementTeam” or “MaryJoeAndPhil” depending on your asthetic preferences. Then you can assign the To-Do to this artificial entity, or “mystery employee”.
Team members can either view ASSIGNED TO ANYONE lists, specifically log in as that artificial entity, etc.
For those cases where multiple people must do the same thing, simply clip-and-paste the content into several to-do items.

Fed up with the idiocy 09 Aug 06

A task by any other name is still a task. Assign it and move on. Pick up any project management book and you’ll find that this software follows all of the basic principles of Project Management. THE BASICS. You know your industry, 37s is just going back to the basics and providing the tool to use on the project. It isn’t Home Depot’s responsibility to build the house, but they do provide the tools. (Cheesy comparision; I couldn’t stop myself.)

Robert Huebner 10 Aug 06

I agree that there needs to be primary responsibility. Our company has done multiple projects with large customers (videogames) and the best workflow we have found is to have a single PRIMARY assignment for a task, and a number of SECONDARY assignments of the task, which are additional people who will also see the task on their radar but are not currently the “primary” holder of the bug. And of course the primary assignment can be shuffled between the multiple secondary assignees. Best of both worlds. After 8 years this is a no-brainer for us, at least for videogame development.

Think about it! There may be better places to draw a line in the sand…

j weiner 16 Aug 06

allowing only one name is fine - IF that one name is allowed to create the subtasks and assign them using this tool.

If I have to create every subtask, I’m micromanaging my outfit (no one is happy and it’s fabulously inefficient). I do want to be the one who determines what resources are assigned to a task and let them sort out who accomplishes the subtasks. Is there a way to do that in Basecamp?

James Poolos 24 Aug 06

This is the one missing feature prohibiting my company from purchasing and using Basecamp. Overall, it looks like a great product. But if the software can’t track by group, it’s worthless to me. With all due respect, if software companies are the filters of business practice, I’m tossing the filter in the trash.

James Poolos

Small teams 12 Sep 06

for small teams this is a huge issue since say everyone has to do swap a weekly schedule and you have 6 people in the team. do you really want someone in charge of it?

You could do so much more including scheduling meetings, conference calls etc if you could assign multiple people the task

Sean 21 Sep 06

I think the following issue has not been addressed, my apologies if someone has already mentioned it:

I would like to be able to view to-do list assignments at the company level- not just the individual level. How can I do this if I can only assign a task to EITHER a company or a person? Am I missing something? Do I have to refer back to a list of everyone in a particular company and check each of their to-do lists separately?

SM Kelly 06 Oct 06

I’m with Sean (21 Sep 06). I’m sampling Basecamp and the one big drawback is that I cannot associate projects and to-do’s with a particuar client in such a way that I can see projects and to-do’s at the client level. And ESPECIALLY I would love to be able to see resources (time) committed to work for individual clients for both a single project as well as for any and all projects done for that client.