On a roll without a role
December 9, 2010
Like actors we all play several different roles in our lives because the roles help ourselves and others in our interactions. The roles set the expectations for how we should behave and interact.
At work we assume roles such as tester, developer, project manager etc. These roles also set the expectations for what we should do and know, with whom we should interact and how we should do it.
According to Merriam-Webster a role is “a socially expected behavior pattern usually determined by an individual’s status in a particular society.”
Did you notice the word “status” in the previous paragraph? We tend to; implicitly or explicitly, associate our roles with some sort of status. Senior developers are better than their junior peers. Architects are better than developers of any rank. A test lead has to be better than a tester. A developer is either better or worse than a tester depending on if you’re a tester or a developer. A project manager outranks pretty much everyone.
For managers, these roles are a great way to put people in a box; to categorize people by the knowledge and experiences they are supposed to hold. Assigning someone a role also means that we can assign them responsibility, we know that the tester should do the testing, that the developer should do the developing and that the executive should do the executing (or whatever).
The concept of roles gives us predictability about people. And predictability is a good thing isn’t it?
Encyclopedia Britannica puts this predictability as: “… An individual may have a unique style, but this is exhibited within the boundaries of the expected behaviour.”
But what if we act in a complex environment and want our teams to self-organize in order to cope with variability and complexity? Are the traits that I described above helpful in any way or would we be better off without the roles? My answer is that the traditional roles that we meet in our organizations are limiting our ability to self-organize.
Team members comfortable in a role usually won’t hesitate to assume the responsibilities associated with the role but … they also know where their responsibilities end. It is not when the problem is solved; it’s at the boundary with the next role. People who identify themselves with a role are often comfortable speaking with their peers but less so when it comes to communicating with other roles. If we have a perceived difference in status or rank it will drive the wedge even deeper.
A self-organizing team needs a number of different competencies to solve problems but it does not need these competencies to be locked inside roles. Communication among team members is the single most important factor for successful self-organization, but having preconceived expectations on who should communicate with whom is a limitation that we can do without.
Many organizations have templates for the parts needed in a project team. “We need one architect, two programmers, two testers, one test lead, a project manager and one project coordinator.” Really? Are you really sure that you need these roles? Could it be that you need a number of competencies that will ensure the structural integrity and the quality of the product. Perhaps you also need people who understand the importance of communicating with stakeholders and other teams.
I do believe that a team without assigned roles will become more fractal in the sense that each competence will be found in each of the team members (higher truck numbers). The team will be able to communicate between competencies. The team will share responsibility for delivering a high quality product without throwing work over the fence.
Doing away with roles also means that some managers will have to learn how to treat employees as individuals instead of as typecasted resources and throw away their old models for seniority and wage ladders and … and nevermind, I guess this might have been a naive daydream after all.