It’s Not My Job
Role Definition is Important
If I have been on a decades long drive to make work more flexible, Alton Brown has been on a similar one in the kitchen. There is no shortage of rants on his various shows about “unitaskers” … things in your kitchen that can only do one thing and therefore are only useful in a few, often unlikely, contexts.
In agile and lean and in good business in general, we seek to mimic this flexibility by getting people to experience different projects, job-types, and perspectives. This helps us deal with frustrating situations by having many people in the organization who can react quickly to variation or opportunity.
Having said that, in the great pendulum-swing that is human excitement, we have gone so far the other way that we want everyone to be a generalist and shy away from being purposeful about who is going to do what.
And, in general, it’s helpful to know what we are doing.
This has led to problems in role definition. Role definition is not a job description and it can change as often as we need it. Generalists can have roles. Indeed, every time a bunch of generalists get into a car, at least one immediately has a role — they need to drive. There can’t be a “I thought you were going to be the brake-pedal pusher today.” Any of those generalists can drive, but the location behind the steering wheel should (hopefully) be a fair enough visual indicator of who is doing it now.
Just like Alton isn’t going to want unitaskers in the kitchen, he’s still not going to cut raw pork and then use the same unwashed knife to cut bread. They may be multi-purpose knives, but in that context the rules of the kitchen give the unitaskers role definition. “For this moment, you are the porcine blade.”
Yet functional cross-contamination rules in every office. The longer the project, the more simultaneous work, the more people, the more interactions, create a confused and dangerous atmosphere. “I was already doing that.” “I thought you were getting that.” “I told him the complete opposite of what you just said.” “What in the hell is that?!”
It’s as if we have 20 chefs making a meal for 500 with no order to our kitchen.
So, here’s the thing. Every saucier can grill a steak. Every executive chef can prep lettuce. Every sous chef can scoop ice cream. They are, to an extent, generalists, multitaskers. But they don’t run around cooking everything every day.
On any given day, however, they do need to focus on specific things. Those things have roles. What’s on the menu, what’s been selling, what needs to be upsold, different ways to prep, new improvements in technique, or even who is coming in that night can all subtly or not-so-subtly change what people do that day.
Good kitchens tend to be noisy, communication abounds, demands change regularly. But people have roles. The kitchen itself has a structure. There is mise-en-place, a structure to the space that avoids actively poisoning your guests.
There is structure that focuses effort in the desire to produce quality food. There is role definition that ensures that quality and the safety of the kitchen.
In the office, we fear such transparency or organization. We want to greedily “focus” on our personal work, but do so without fundamentally knowing what is going on around us. Real focus requires a degree of awareness on what you can and should be doing. Ignoring other people is not synonymous with focus. Ignoring people does not mean your role is defined.
Role definition, in this case, is understanding what type of knife you are and what you will be cutting today. In this block, we are all utility knives. We can cut almost anything, that doesn’t mean we cut everything. It doesn’t mean that you always focus on one thing and can cop an attitude and decide we are actually a boning knife.
If we are in a company, we are there to work in the company of others. You are not immune or special. Regardless of what the group does (including sales, customer support, coding or whatever else you might feel this doesn’t apply), there are shared goals, shared responsibilities, and a need to continuously improve. There is always collaborative work.
Depending on what the group needs to get done, roles can be loose overall but need to be tight at the moment of action. Are you doing the right thing? Is that thing going to mesh well with the things other people are doing? Do you know what others are doing so you can help or not mess them up? How long have you been doing this thing without checking in with others? Do we know what the customer wants?
How To Define a Role
Role definition is simply what we need to do, each of us, to get today done. Quite often that will be what we did yesterday. Even if we think “we pretty much have our own work today and there’s not a lot of overlap”, if that were always true you wouldn’t be a group. There is always something to learn from and to teach our colleagues. There is always a way to provide and receive help. There is always a way to improve.
To define roles, the team should ask itself what does the team need to accomplish. The individuals on the team might have focused, individual work, but the team needs to improve and deliver. To that end, there is always opportunities for shared work and, therefore, for role definition. If you believe your team is truly a set of autonomous people who do not need to communicate or understand what they are doing, you do not have a team.
So, let’s just consider four simplified steps to quickly build role definition.
Step One — The team has goals (improvement, sales, production, etc.). Be explicit about them.
Step Two — Define what needs to be done. Make those goals happen. Don’t wait or hope. Even if it’s something small, every day, work towards those goals.
Step Three — Define what each person needs to do to make those goals happen. Have expectations, again they can be modest, but begin to feel like a real team with real shared objectives.
Step Four — Do and Review. Do the work today / Review the work tomorrow.
Right now you might be part of chaos, but these simple steps in defining roles with a purpose can and should start as a tiny fraction of your work. As they become second nature, they will save you from the drudgery of being a unitasker while allowing you each day to enjoy the focus of one.
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About Jim Benson
Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller: Personal Kanban. His other books include Why Limit WIP, Why Plans Fail, and Beyond Agile. He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking and the Brickell Key Award. He and Tonianne teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. He regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.