Work distribution for thinking managers

Work distribution is one of the primary responsibilities of a manager but which approach works best?

This article examines not only the mechanisms but the psychologies to the different approaches to help you choose what’s best for your business.

This article is for all managers who would like to sense check their approach to work distribution.

  • Background
  • Generalisations
  • Approaches
  • Work distribution

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Your job

Whilst every business is unique and has a unique suite of products and services, the role of manager is quite universal in some regards.

As a manager, imagine your team like a machine.  As the expression goes, your job is “to keep a well oiled machine running well.”

The machine is doing the work and you need to keep the machine efficient and help it any way you can.

This article asks you to step back and objectively look at how you manage your “machine” and consequently examine your work distribution approach.

Whether Sydney or Franklin said it, or it’s found in the Bible or Quran, the management approach of “God helps those who help themselves” and leaving it to the staff is not effective unless your team does your job for you.

You’re the manager you need to manage, but what does that entail?


Input – Process – Output

One of the most basic models to manage anything is the Input Process Output model or IPO model.

  • You give work to a person, so you input to them their task.
  • They perform the task, the process.
  • You get back the result of that work, the output.

No matter how complicated you think your solution, team or situation is, this model is the basis of business operations.



A metric is just an objective number to allow you make unemotional informed decisions.

You can get information about all three stages of what happens during the IPO approach.

  • Input: At the start you give them everything you expect to get out and a successful job is when they give you back everything you need.  You literally decide where every piece of work goes.
  • Process: You stand over the shoulder watching everything they do
  • Output: Quality and review processes

Computers and systems can be very handy in gathering metrics / numbers for you which help you review your decisions.



Motivation and Psychology

People are not machines and require you to learn how to work with them, not to work them like a machine.

The second you treat a person like a machine is the second you fail to be a good manager.

Things change what you need to learn is how best to manage that change.

Firstly you need to understand your motivations subsequently making your work distribution decisions.

Once you understand yourself you need to understand your staff’s psychology and motivations in order to get the best out of everyone.



Creatives vs. workhorses

Within most businesses there are two very broad catchall worker types.

Creatives and workhorses and as a result work distribution varies greatly depending on the balance of your team.

  • Creatives are the staff who come up with ideas to deal with issues and challenges that haven’t been seen before.  They thrive on diversity and the unknown and love the associated stress.
  • Workhorses are the heavy lifters who get through the work come hail or shine.  These people can adapt and change like creatives but much prefer being in more certain and familiar situations.

Creatives can be workhorses and vice versa but in general every person favors one side of the other more of the time.  Certainty or uncertainty more often.  It’s not a right or wrong to be either and a business needs both to grow and survive.

As a manager recognise the general approach in your people and realise that people change over time.  Creative or workhorse your job is to help, support, encourage and drive the work to be done.

Write out the list of the team you manage and figure out which are creative and which are workhorse.  It is important as your decisions will greatly influence your strategic choices.



Cortisol is a drug released by your brain which manages stress.  Stress gives humans the fight or flight response.

  • Fight is useful as it helps you knuckle down and get work done but you can only fight for so long before exhaustion kicks in.
  • Flight makes you run away and not want to get anything done.  Running away from / avoiding work isn’t fair for the team or the business.

While you manage your own cortisol, how are you managing your teams levels?

Where you are a manager managing managers, you require confidence but at what point does confidence tip into delusion?



Playing the hand you’re dealt

You are who you are.  Your team are who they are.

Recongisning that everyone changes from day to day with ups and downs, personal lives are part of the tapestry of people’s personalities.

Every day taking stock and getting a metric of how the team are doing is key to good management.

If you get in the car, a quick glance at the fuel gauge before setting off on a day of driving is sensible.  Did you check the fuel level of all your staff today?


Doing the teams work yourself is pointless.  That isn’t managing that is becoming part of the machine and the easiest management trap to fall into.

  • You need to work with the team, not for the team and be available to unclog their issues.
  • You may be as qualified or more qualified to do the work but your job changed when you became the manager.
  • You’re not there to move more work than anyone else you’re there to help everyone else move work.

Trust me when I say that’s much easier to say than do.  I am very much a dive in and help but the only way people can grow and learn is to do thing themselves.  How you approach supporting those staff is what’s important.

Above I asked you to list your team and list out the creatives and workhorses.  Now you’re going to need that list.



Great for workhorses

If you have predominantly workhorses this strategy works best.

The work is generated by time based events or customer / client based interactions.

Coming up on renewal dates or a customer emails in needing something will generate a work pile that needs to be worked through.

In your role as manager you need to keep the team’s motivation up so they process more and more.  Understanding your team’s motivation and working those motivations is the focus.

Like in the army you don’t really need thinking, you need doing.  So get it done using psychology on your team.



  • 1. Creation Ownership: The person who first hears / takes the call is responsible for the work.
  • Example: Call centre support team get a call and own it start to finish.  Sometimes called “First Contact Resolution” FCR


  • 2. Predetermined Ownership:  Used in account management.  If a customer calls in who looks after those types of calls.
  • Example:  Call in for an account manager.


  • 3. Interim Ownership:  I’ll take the first work thrown to me but if I have to pass to another team with specialty when I’m ready if it needs to move on.
  • Example:  Hospital triage review the patient and move the work to the best team upon review.


  • 4. Ownership by Flag / Status: For specialist teams as soon as the work is graded it then belongs to a person or team.
  • Example:  Reception in a nightclub provides different services and options based on high rollers or VIPs.




Some managers find this aspect of management daunting… telling people what to do.

Using computer systems to push work to people can remove the human dynamic and allow you to maintain a friendly posture whilst blaming the machine.


Yet as the manager you put the system in place.  So you need to manage the people and the systems to keep people motivated.



If you’ve come up through the ranks this can wrankle as people think “why am I taking orders from them?”.

  • The SWAT TV series of 2017, Season 1 episodes 1 and 2 where Hondo takes over the team and
  • CSI Vegas Season 2 Episode 10 when Warrick is left in charge of the team he has dynamics to manage.

are good examples of this dynamic in action.


Creatives in a push strategy

Where you use a push approach and you have a creative, the creative will get bored.

In a broad generalisation the more educated and capable the person is, the more quickly they become bored with a push approach.



Great for creatives

If you have a lot of creatives in your team then pulling is a better work distribution strategy to adopt.

This approach plays on the creatives desire to work and their enthusiasm to take on more to help the team.

Sales teams who operate on commission or complicated problem solving teams thrive in this approach.

In your role as manager the team are already pretty self motivated so removing blocks or demotivation factors is the focus.

As with a push approach, the work list forms from time based or people generated events.



  • 5. First Come First Served.  There is a work pile and when people are ready they dive request the next item from the pile.
  • Example:  An outbound calling list where customers are to be called.  When you’ve done the first one, the next one is waiting to go.


  • 6. Grouped First Come First Served.  The work is put in the middle of the table and people elect which ones they’re going to take.
  • Example: Agile methodologies provide this approach with the Product Owner acting as referee.



Opportunity to take the foot off the gas

This approach is based on the premise that staff motivation will make people want to dive in.  When people are demotivated this approach comes apart.

The rewards are higher as staff are generally more motivated and looking to do work, yet when they become demotivated the work can slow to unacceptable levels.


Playing it safe

Confidence is a huge factor in motivation.  Some staff who have low confidence will shy away from the more complicated jobs and harm their own growth.

As the manager you need to encourage and cajole staff in developing themselves and their skills.



A mixed bag

So you have a split of Creatives and Workhorses but the same work queue will result in most managers choosing an approach that suits their management style.


The following strategies are usually employed where there are two stages to handling queries and your team can be involved in the two stages.


If your team prefer push, they like strong leadership that’s hands on and instructive.

Preferring pull, they encourage themselves and each other to drive the work and prefer you to unstick their challenges.



  • 7. First Come First Service with Ownership on Contact.  This is ideal for turning a pull into push.
  • Example. People apply for a mortgage and if they are qualified as viable they assume ownership of that process.  Now if the person contacts again they are pushed straight to the owner.


  • 8. FCFS with Elected / Escalated Ownership.  This is a push into a pull.  Unlike interim ownership more freedom is given to the person who did the FCFS and they can elect to be the person who continues the ownership
  • Example:  Sales call comes in and the agent feels they have enough skill and time to close out the sale.  By working on this they effectively remove themselves from FCFS till they’re done.  They could also elect to hand it off to someone else to do.




These approaches are dependent on your team making balanced decisions in the interests of the business consequently working with not against your work distribution strategy.

The output of the choices needs to be monitored by management to ensure fairness.

The gains in productivity can far outweigh the fairness if your team is fair minded.


Work distribution


No matter how motivated you can make yourself it is possible to over do it.

A good manager can see it in a staff member and step in and keep the productivity of the team up by stopping people over working.

It’s not the HR departments job to motivate your team, it’s your job.  You are “managing” your team.



Computer systems

The right system can help you implement any of the strategies and I personally have seen numerous iterations of each of the approaches used in various businesses.

Systems provide metrics, unambiguous unemotive numbers which help managers make informed decisions and unstick their teams challenges.

Systems can also manage the work queues even if the requests come in through mixed channels, i.e. via phone, email, sms, social media, websites, white mail or people walking up to a counter.

Let systems help you in your management by getting you information to help your decision making.

Systems can help you review the input and output stages of your process objectively.  They can also massively support your work distribution strategy.


Gamification and motivating the troops

Gamification is recognising people’s motivations and putting in systems to maximise against those motiviations.

Identifying what motivates someone requires you to put yourself in that person’s shoes.  I had the pleasure of working with an amazing Morale Office called Lidia Grisi and she explained to me.  Motivating someone is about knowing what drives them.  The Panda is driven by food not by exercise or hard work, so work with it not against it.


You have to motivate yourself before you can motivate others.

I will have a future article discussing gamification in more detail and update this section when it’s available.

For the moment here’s some positivity from Jon Gordon.

It also helps if the staff can motivate themselves?


HR & Training

Human Resources can help you in delivering your motivation goals.  It’s part of their remit but day to day you’re the manager not them.

Company culture, company benefits, training and development and company communications can all help you in your delivery.

Intelligent systems can even take some of the personalisation work out of management.


Wrap up

Self Checks

Some quick questions you should be able to answer for yourself.

  • I have X creatives and Y workhorses on my team
  • Our work strategy for work distribution to date has been XXX?
  • I believe the XXX work distribution strategy best suits my approach to management
  • There is a system in place which gives me metrics to inform me if my management approach is working
  • I work with HR to motivate my team and remind them of the good things about working in this business




If there’s anything in this article you’d like to chat to me about you can contact me here or on social media.



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