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Clarifying Roles & Responsibilities

Just do it’ is the mantra of the age.  It very much appeals to leaders in these fast-changing and increasingly competitive times. However, behind the aspiration the reality is somewhat different.  Many executives want to ‘Just do it!’, but are left asking ‘Can I do it?’

Getting Clarity

Organizations are complex hierarchical structures, overlaid with cross-functional committees and teams. Knowing who actually holds the power can be difficult.  It may not be your boss or the leader of any of your project teams either!

Moreover, complex projects can have dozens of stakeholders – all with different levels of power.  The result is that executives cannot ‘just do it’, without first pausing to consider ‘Can I do it?’ They find themselves asking:

All these questions can be summarized in the acronym CAN I DO IT? – as shown below.

‘CAN I DO IT’ – is an acronym Aimed at ensuring greater clarity regarding roles, as well as responsibilities and rights.  The initials stand for different types of roles – from not being involved to being accountable. It is about decision-making, but also about getting the work done.

Going Beyond RACI

The most popular acronym is RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consult & Inform), it is short and easy to remember. However, given the emergence of the matrix and cross-functional teams 4 letters are rarely enough. This is obvious from the following example of roles and responsibilities for a specific work stream of a complex cross-functional initiative.

All executives, except for a few organizational mavericks, must continually ask CAN I DO IT? For every major task, work stream or decision they must know who needs to be consulted, asked, informed, etc. The result is the ability to map roles and responsibilities, as per the diagram above.

Asking The Questions

There are moments of doubt and uncertainty within every team regarding who is doing what, as well as who need to be informed, who needs to be asked for their input or their approval.  Given the complexity of the modern organization, this is inevitable. However, there may be a point when the lack of clarity regarding roles and responsibilities reduces speed and agility

Where is your team on the ‘Just Do It!’ – ‘Can I Do It Spectrum’? The answer provides an insight to your team’s ability to get things done – its level of speed and agility, as well as its collaboration and innovation.

Role Confusion in a Matrix

In a hierarchy, life was easier and roles were clearer – you had one boss and one team. Today, more and more of the organization’s important work done in committees and teams that span traditional boundaries and functions.  These cross-functional teams as especially prone to asking CAN I DO IT?

The problem is that some executives end up asking ‘Can I do it?’ so often that it is getting in the way of effectively doing their work. It is the very opposite to ‘Just Do It!’

Hence, the importance of clarifying roles and responsibilities early in a project or work stream.

Look for External Dependencies

Those who can ‘just do it’ have a great advantage over those who are left waiting for committee meetings approvals & sign-offs.  Asking for Approval can generate an external dependency which inhibits the level of speed and agility required by business unusual projects.

Too many external dependencies can rob a team of the ability to realize its full potential. Every time a team has to go to a committee for approval it’s ownership and responsibility may be diminished.

It is important to draw a distinction between Business As Usual and Business Unusual project and initiatives. The former can be run via a top-down structure and tight spans of control. However, Business Unusual requires levels of speed, collaboration, and innovation beyond what a traditional hierarchy can deliver. If a project team is to be agile, it must be given sufficient levels of autonomy.

Look for Owners & Drivers

What Role(s) matter most and where is clarity most needed?  Well, most people would, rightly, point to Drive and Own.  This is the DO part of the acronym – it is essential to making it happen, with the questions being: 

  • Who must Drive a particular area / work stream (i.e. get it done)?
  • Who Owns a particular area / work stream?

Arguably, the most important role here is that of the owner and driver – they are responsible for making it happen although in terms of power they need to have authority / approval as well as oversight.

This area has the potential for great confusion.  For example, is Driving and Owning the same thing?  Do you need to own an area to drive it? 

The traditional RACI model, drew a distinction between responsibility (who is responsible for doing the work) and accountability (where the buck stops). This is another way of looking at Driving and Owning. It may not end the confusion, however. A key factors is the extent to which a team is granted autonomy.

What does ‘own it’ mean? Is it quite literally who owns the area according to the organizational chart, or is it a broader sense of ownership? The latter is the ideal of the internal entrepreneur – who takes ownership as part of their total commitment to an area.

In most cases the goal should be for those driving to have a high level of ownership.

Clarifying Roles – The Payback

Clarifying roles and responsibilities is probably the one thing you could do that would have the greatest impact on the performance as well as the health of your team.  Moreover, it can also reduce the level of pressure on overworked executives and improve the effectiveness of collaboration.

Some research suggests that clarifying roles is twice as powerful as an organizational restructure.  However, anybody who has been through a re-structure will tell you that is probably an underestimate. 

Clarifying roles is more effective than an organizational re-structure, with none of the pain!  

Importantly, clarifying roles generally involves little or no pain for those involved. It does not require redrawing the organizational chart, changing job titles or re-writing job descriptions – so it is a lot faster and a lot less risky too. 

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