Communication, Communication, Communication
In every team, communication is key. As a kid, I had this hammered into my skull time and time again. Playing ice hockey, you had a position. The position was well defined. If you were out of position, the coach was not impressed. I found the same thing in every team sport I played.
Sometimes, there was a play that was between positions, like a fly ball between the short stop and left field. In that situation, it was very important to call the ball, yelling off your teammates. This told your teammates that you intended to play the ball, keeping them from running into you. Especially important when you are running towards each other looking up. :)
I am surprised to find that even with all of this training as children, we fail to take this knowledge into the workforce. I see teams failing to "call the ball", stepping on each other's toes while working on the same task. I also see teams that forgetting tasks, assuming that someone else is taking care of it.
What can we do about this!? First, give people a position. Make them responsible for a single area of work. That area should be well reasonably defined! Make sure that you get complete coverage of the incoming work out of all of the positions on your team. Don't worry about a little overlap, we'll get to that. :) Taking the easy way out and making the entire team responsible for all of the work isn't going to work either. If you do this, you end up looking like a group of five year olds playing any sport (hockey, rugby, soccer)... Everyone ends up clustered around the most important piece of work.
Let's look at how this type of system would work.
When a piece of work arrives that is covered by a person's position, they cover it, no problem.
When something overlaps, people have to call ownership. They have to assign the work to themselves, and if they assign the work to themselves, they are accepting responsibility for that work - all the way to completion or hand-off to someone else. The converse is also true. They shouldn't work on something without calling it unless it has already been "called". Otherwise, they run the risk of confusing everyone. If you don't play "call ball", and start helping out, who is leading the work? No one knows, especially not a third party coming along later.
In order for any of this to work, everyone needs to know not only their position, but everyone else's. This is where communication comes in. Without it, people won't know when their positions overlap. The team needs to communicate not only who is responsible for what, but who is working on what.
If you start playing "call ball", you will have a lot fewer customers saying, "Hello? Is anyone working on this?", as well as a focus on the important work, instead of the most current.
As I read this post, it all seems too obvious. Of course I say, that's exactly how it should work! Yet, it seems to be a very rare occurrence in the marketplace.