The Problem of One-offs

I did something the other morning that I will likely never have to do again. It was something that I otherwise would have documented and handed off to another person, but in the mindset of my strategic thinking flowchart, I was the only person who had the knowledge and could do it at the time. Add to that, the fact that this was a true one-off; the system in question will be turned off in July. I came away, though, feeling like I had broken a rule, that I had lost a battle somehow. Perhaps this was because on the spectrum of immediate versus important, this was definitely not important and to top it all off, I’m technically on vacation right now.

As an aside, I knew this vacation wouldn’t be a normal one for me. I am in the midst of a number of projects and challenges in my daily work and I started my time away from home with a rigorous leadership workshop that will command much of my thinking time during the vacation. During the workshop, I was barely available for any daily work aside from checking email. I worked two days to catch up” and close some loops that I had left open during the workshop, but all in all, I think I left things fairly well prepared for my absence. I should probably write something up about that process as well.

Back to the main topic, my experience the other morning losing a battle with the part of me that impulsively completed a task got me thinking about the bigger issue of one-offs or cases of infrequent tasks that we do out of habit instead of need. I am sure I have many examples of such things in my own work, but I would say it is a common blind spot, so I want to be able to call such things out when I notice them.

As blind spots go, I notice them in other people and I also try to call that out where appropriate. For instance, in situations where I notice a tech workflow that could be operationalized, documented, and completed by anyone with the access, I ask if a student could do the work. This line of questioning doesn’t always end up in a student doing the work, but it does lend itself to a conversation about delegation and necessity.

I started to think about these things awhile ago when I wrote Planned Obsolescence and started to think through delegation and the handoff that should happen as you progress in your career. There are days when you should do the work you know better than anyone else and there are days when you should write the documentation to prepare the next generation for that work.

The problem with one-offs is the fact that they are never as straightforward as a single ticket or workflow. Not only do we rationalize the one-off turned infrequent but consistent workflow, but we then form blindspots from those same one-offs. We go from I will do it this one time” to This is the work that I do.” It is the reason why being aware of these things (and working to delegate them) is so integral to shifting the mindset of a leader from the urgent to the important.

Of course, after saying all that, the example I mentioned at the top was a true one-off; building documentation and passing it onto another person would not benefit anyone. However, the point stands: I am trying to flex the muscle to be aware of and pass along these types of things, so I can move onto the next, more important item on the to-do list.




In 2022, I am participating in two leadership training programs. This should be a social experience, so I am writing about it. Check out the full list of posts in the series here.

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