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Scaling Human Systems: Roles and Responsibilities

This is part 5 in a series on organizational design and growth.

What it means

Each of us has a job to do, probably more than one, and our teammates should know what they are.

Why it’s important

Roles are a kind of standing commitment we make to each other. They’re a way of dividing up work which is easy to understand and simple to apply. Utilizing this tool will make it easier for us to coordinate our day to day work, and manage the changes and growth we’re going through.

Old Status Quo

Roles are vague or nonexistent. Management roles in particular are probably not well understood. Many people juggle multiple roles, all of which are implicit. Moving to a new team means learning from scratch what other people do. People take responsibility for tasks and decisions largely on a case-by-case basis, or based on implicit knowledge of what someone does (or doesn’t do). In many cases, there is only one person in the company who knows how to perform a certain function. When someone leaves or goes on vacation, gaps are left behind.

New Status Quo

Each individual has a clear understanding of the scope of their job. We have a handful of well defined roles, which are used by multiple teams and have written definitions. People who are new or transfer between teams have a relatively easy time understanding what the people around them are doing. Many day to day responsibilities are defined by roles, and more than one person can fill that role. When someone leaves a team, another person can cover their critical roles.

Behaviors that help

  • Define project roles: when starting something new, make it explicit who will be working on it. Often this will be more than one person, often from different teams. For example, customer-facing product changes should have at least a product owner and an engineering owner. This makes it easy to tell if too many concurrent projects are dependent on a single person, which is a recipe for blockage.

  • Define team roles: Most recurring tasks should fall within a defined role. An owner of a technical service is an example of a role. An on-call engineer is an example of a time-limited role. There are many others which will depend on the team and its scope.

  • Define job roles: Have a conversation with your teammates and manager about what the scope of your job is, which responsibilities are shared with other members of the team and which are yours alone.

Obstacles that stand in our way

  • Getting hung up on titles as ego gratification. Roles are tools, not masters.

  • Fear that a role limits your options, locks you into doing one thing forever. Roles can be as flexible as we want them to be.

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Written by Matt Zimmerman

August 27, 2013 at 17:05

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  1. […] Part 5: Roles and Responsibilities […]

  2. […] roles and responsibilities: job roles are a tool to communicate with other people about what you do. By having a shared […]

  3. […] roles and responsibilities: job roles are a tool to communicate with other people about what you do. By having a shared […]


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