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Roles, Not Souls: Designing Adaptable Organizations

Earlier this month I wrote a blog highlighting a new leadership framework emerging out of the need to create organizations that are not only more successful and adaptable, but also more soulful. The first step most organizations and teams make along this path is to separate roles from souls.  More specifically, separating the work from the person.

In traditional organizations, a lot of time is wasted arguing about what work to do, how to do it, and who should get it done. Due to the lack of clear accountability, endless time is wasted in meetings, rehashing who is doing what by when. No one knows who has authority over what and ill-prepared attempts to empower employees within these traditional structures have only made matters worse.

I first learned about the idea and process of de-coupling roles from Holacracy. In this new framework, roles are defined based on logical groupings of accountabilities without attention to the actual number of employees in the organization.

There are almost always more roles than employees as individuals are expected to select several roles that intersect with their unique skills and passions in meeting the organization’s purpose.  The beauty of this design is the ease in which accountabilities can be moved from person to person without having to go through a lengthy job reclass process or a painful elimination.  No longer is the “that’s not my job” excuse applicable or allowable.

From an organizational design perspective, this structure has nothing to do with the specific people within the organization.  In fact, the process is much more successfully defined without reference to them. People come in the next step in response to energizing roles that meet both individual and organizational purpose. Removing the rigidness of “jobs” allows people to take on different roles at different times allowing tremendous adaptability when an organization needs to shift course as well as career satisfaction when an individual wants to take on new responsibilities.

I’ve had the opportunity to experience this process first hand as well as support an organization in the transition from traditional jobs to adaptable roles. Based on these experiences, here are a few insights.

Role Identification

The first step is to diligently move through the “Role Identification” process. There are two distinct processes I’d recommend.  The first is to start from an organizational level and begin articulating each of the roles that must happen on a daily basis to get the work done. With a preliminary list, teams begin to write the specifics of each role (purpose, responsibilities, accountabilities) based on the collective wisdom of all. Percolab has a fantastic process outlined here that I’ve used with success!

The second option is to begin at the ground level and identify all the accountabilities first (i.e. ongoing activities), then group them together (focusing on the nature of the work not who’s doing it now), and then label the cluster with a specific role. This process is often recommended by Holacracy practitioners and a useful guide can be found here.

However, there is no recipe for success that fits all situations and the best solutions are often those which are hacked from several different approaches to meet the unique needs of your organization or team. The beauty of roles is the adaptability they provide as anyone can propose a change to a role by simply calling for a brief team meeting to discuss. Adjustments are made real-time based on the needs of the organization, teams, and individuals involved.  It is truly a liberating experience!

Later this month I will outline the importance of Social Agreements at work – a process that transitions the responsibility and authority for defining work, addressing performance issues, and making decisions to those whom it affects.

For more information and support making the transitions from the traditional jobs to adaptable roles, email me at