The business was weeks behind on deadlines, and the technical team had been pulling all-nighters, but their products continually failed to meet business requirements. Hours were spent in design and planning sessions with the business to understand specifications, yet the technical team continued to miss targets.
I was brought into a working session in which the two departments had reached yet another impasse, the most recent episode in an ongoing disagreement going back many months. Tensions were high. Someone threw a permanent marker across the room in frustration. The issue, I quickly learned, came down to overlap in role responsibilities. Each department had a team member with the responsibility of translating business requirements into technical specifications. The individuals in these roles worked independently with incomplete and often contradictory information. As a result, the specifications received by the technical team were inaccurate. Despite the apparent source of conflict, neither side was willing to cede ground out of fear that responsibilities would be redefined in a way that would cause them to lose control over the requirements process.
Rather than take on the role of a judge and attempt to arbitrate the dispute directly, I suggested we try a simple exercise. Individuals from each side were given sticky notes with a color corresponding to each role. Using these sticky notes, the group outlined the responsibilities for each of the conflicting roles, then worked together to categorize them. It became immediately apparent where overlap occurred. This allowed the departments to address each conflict in turn and effectively disentangle the responsibilities of each role while preserving each department's influence over the requirements process.
The Importance of Role Clarity
Role clarity is essential for individual contributors to know how they can make a meaningful contribution to the organization. When each person has a clear understanding of their responsibilities, efforts can be directed where they are most needed, and critical activities are more likely to be completed successfully. Role clarity also improves team dynamics by setting expectations between teammates and giving each person a clear picture of how their contribution impacts the team's goals.
Risks to Lacking Role Clarity
In the absence of clearly defined roles, individuals are likely to create their own roles, which could be duplicative and may foster conflict as individuals on both sides of the duplication seek to protect what they have defined as their turf. The most significant risk to the business, however, is the loss of effectiveness that comes when people are not performing the activities critical to business performance.
Designing for Role Clarity
If you have identified opportunities for improving role clarity in your organization, consider the following steps:
Understand the business goals and what activities are most important to meet the business objectives.
Conduct an audit to understand the activities currently being performed, and the time, effort, and skills required to complete the tasks.
Categorize the activities by required skills to create roles.
Define roles based on the time it takes to perform activities in each role.
Document the roles and responsibilities in formal job descriptions.
Role clarity is essential to ensure that each member of the workforce is contributing to the overall business strategy. When individuals in the workforce understand roles and responsibilities, they can take ownership of their work, manage expectations for themselves and others, and collaborate effectively with team members to reach business goals.