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Roles: Two Perspectives & One Major Blind spot

Ensuring that people are in the Right Roles is one of the greatest opportunities facing any project or team – one of the greatest challenges too. Yet, the need to clarify and adapt roles is a blind spot for many leaders, with roles typically seen as static, rather than dynamic.

Here we challenge traditional perspectives regarding roles. The objective is to illuminate a blind spot and empower executives to adapt roles and optimize their ways of working.

Two Perspectives on Roles

There are two ways to look at roles – the first is what we call big ‘R’ roles the second small ‘r’.

  • Big ‘R’ is roles as seen from an organizational structure or design perspective. This deals with the lines and boxes on the org chart or the set-up of a unit or team, job descriptions, functional responsibilities, lines of reporting and so on.
  • Small ‘r’ is roles as seen from a ‘ways of working’ perspective.  It is about empowering people to find the best way to collaborate effectively for any specific project or initiative.

Here is a quick summary of the key difference between Big and small ‘r’ perspectives on roles.

Here is the difference between big ‘R’ and small ‘r’ explored in more detail:

The Big ‘R’ of Roles

  • This is what your job description says, including what you are responsible for and who you are responsible too.
  • It is your place on the organizational chart. Who you report to and where you fit in the organizational hierarchy (authority, pay grade, etc.)
  • The department or function that you belong to.
  • This is your formal Role and it is relatively static – changing only when you get promoted or if there is an organizational restructure. Formal changes to roles and job titles are complex and bureaucratic.
  • Big R roles are about power and privilege – where getting promoted to a new role is a key measure of individual success. 

Client Insight: “When roles can become a source of internal competition. This is what has happened to one of our global clients. Each of the individual business line owners had put their name forward for the newly vacated role of overall business leader.  Those who had previously been colleagues were now competitors and it was starting to show in increasingly political behaviors such as a reluctance to share information, show-boating and so on.  This was compounded  by a lack of transparency in the process of appointment which seemed to drag on from month to month.”

The Small ‘r’ of roles

  • Small ‘r’ roles are about the daily reality of what you do at work.
  • Over time roles can diverge greatly from what is written in your job description. This reflects the fact that roles are in flux.
  • It is collaborative rather than just individualistic. It is about the part you play in the success of a team, and it’s work.
  • It is dynamic – it evolves over time to reflect changes in technology, work methods, business priorities, stakeholder needs, etc.
  • It is within the control of the individual and team.  To adjust, clarify or align roles does not require rewriting job descriptions.
  • It can and should be optimized continually based on the requirements of success for any particular project or work stream.
  • It tends to be more cross-functional and less siloed.  Thus, it reflects the changing shape of the organization – the shift from functional hierarchy to matrix or network of teams.
  • Often entails higher levels of autonomy and agility – where people working together can optimize and refine their roles as part of the way of optimal working together based on the requirements of success for a particular project or initiative.

Contrasting the Big and Small ‘r’ of Roles

Formal big R roles make life simple. Everyone knows ‘where they stand’ – what they are responsible for and who they are responsible too. This applies in neat functional lines from the top to the bottom of the organization. However, this clarity and simplicity often comes at a price in terms of speed and agility.

Big ‘R’ is great for visibility, predictability and control, but it can result in silos, bureaucracy and inflexibility.

When the ‘Big R’ organization seeks to change speed or direction it embarks on an organizational restructure, perhaps a cultural transformation too. These are fraught with danger. It is often a slow and disruptive process with no guaranteed of success.

The key distinction between Big and small ‘r’ roles is that the former are static and the latter are dynamic. Those one is adaptive and agile, while the other is not.

The problem is that Big ‘R’ roles, as set out in job descriptions, were defined long before today’s business priorities or projects were even conceived. So, how can they possibly reflect the realities of people’s roles on a day to day basis.

Small ‘r’ – roles that are dynamic and adapt or evolving – enable greater speed, agility and innovation. It is also to foster bottom-up ownership, as well as collaboration across silos.  Thus, while big ‘R’ is in the control of the boss, small ‘r’ is in the control of teams – they are empowered to find the best way of working together. 

The Implications

Small ‘r’ promises 3 or more times more benefits than big ‘R’.  That is to say clarifying and adapting roles is a lot more powerful than an organizational re-shuffle. Moreover, unlike big ‘R’ it is fast and entails little if any risk. 

Thus, the failure to distinguish between big and small ‘r’ is a major blind spot that denies leaders access to one of the most powerful levers of performance. It therefore hinders speed, agility, collaboration and innovation.

In reality many organizations are somewhere between big ‘R’ and small ‘r’. Leaders want greater speed, agility and innovation. Their ambitious strategies require effective cross-functional collaboration. Thus, some ambiguity, confusion or even conflict around roles is therefore inevitable.

Right roles is one of the 7 rights of performance design (team set-up or structure). It is one of the most important aspects of performance design that our clients leverage to optimize collaboration and ways of working on critical projects and initiatives.

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