Ditch Your Job Descriptions

October 16, 2018

Ditch Your Job Descriptions

Most organizations waste an absurd amount of time arguing about three things: What to do, how to do it, and who should do it.

Endless meetings are spent rehashing who is doing what by when. Despite that, no one ever knows who’s accountable for the steps that are decided upon, so employees don’t want to step outside of their rigid, static job description for concern of reprisal. These dynamics often promote a general sense of apathy for the work at hand.

Thankfully there’s a better alternative. Instead of rigid job descriptions that lead to “not my job” mantras, role-based structures focus on one’s talents and the needs of the organization. Roles are fluid and adaptable to meet needs as they change.

In this framework, roles within an organization are separated from the people who are doing the work. This structure doesn’t undermine the importance of people, but rather allows a team to look at what actual roles are needed to achieve their purpose.

In a traditional job description, individuals have set accountabilities based on the job they hold. If the needs of the organization shift and the job needs to change, there is a long process of reclassification to simply adjust the job description.

In a role-based structure, one person may hold several roles that each contain a set of accountabilities. They’re also free to tackle the work they think is most meaningful.

By using roles, organizations can unleash the untapped talent within each member that may have been wasted outside of a typical job description. They also have workers who are adaptable to changing organizational, market, and internal workforce needs.

A role-based structure is different from traditional job descriptions in four ways:

  1. Roles are based on an organizational purpose. What roles are needed to achieve the desired purpose, what work do those roles need to accomplish, and who is given authority for each role? It’s all about the role, not the people.
  2. Different people take on different roles at different times. When work needs to get done, people can grow into new roles and relinquish old ones.
  3. There is some distributed authority based on the roles. The person responsible for the role makes decisions applicable to that role.
  4. There are usually more roles than employees. Workers are expected to select several roles that intersect with their unique skills and passions.

Adaptability makes this design so powerful for organizations and so satisfying for individuals. Let’s look at how leaders can implement it within their organization.

How to Create a Role-based Structure
The first step is to identify roles, which you can do one of two ways. The first is to identify each of the roles that must happen on a daily basis to get the work of the organization done. With a list in hand, brainstorm the specifics for each role, including its purpose, responsibilities, and accountabilities.

The second approach is to begin from scratch at the ground level and identify all the ongoing activities (accountabilities) that need to be done first. Then group the like accountabilities together, focusing on the nature of the work, not who is doing it.

There’s no recipe for role identification that fits all situations, so it’s important to keep an open mind and work on creative solutions for your individual needs. The best solutions are often those that meld several approaches to meet the needs of the team.

With a role-based structure, anyone can propose a change to a role at any time by simply calling for a brief team meeting, sharing a proposal, and gaining approval. Adjustments are made in real time as individual and team needs evolve.

Moving away from rigid job descriptions to a more fluid, organic process gives individuals the ability to create roles that exemplify their own strengths. When individuals work from their strengths, it’s a win-win situation because employees now have the freedom and authority to uniquely contribute to a shared purpose.

Dealing with Early Struggles
A role-based structure will naturally elicit new and different types of conversations, some which may be awkward to manage initially. Let’s take an example.

A team is faced with a specific role or maybe even a set of roles that need to get done, but no one has interest in doing them. What happens now? Rather than get upset or discouraged, leaders should take this opportunity to discuss priorities and needs:

  • Why is there no interest in taking on this role?
  • Does the role provide the team and organization value?
  • If it doesn’t provide value, is the role even needed?

This conversation may lead the team to hire additional individuals who do have an interest in accomplishing this role or dissolve the role completely. Whatever the move, the team gets a chance to talk about what needs to be done.

Teams most often divvy up roles based on what feels fair and equitable given the amount of time dedicated to their work (i.e. full-time versus part-time workers). Sometimes there becomes a perceived imbalance, however. In a situation where it feels like someone isn’t pulling their weight or not doing as much as other team members, it becomes the responsibility of the team members to call a meeting and discuss the situation. Any team member can call such a meeting.

Strive for a transparent conversation that lays all the variables on the table. When that happens, issues are usually resolved in a way that feels true to everyone’s needs.

The Authors: 

Heather Hanson Wickman, Ph.D., is co-founder of Untethered Consulting.