Why Resource Allocation Is Only Half the Work!
Can You Answer the Million-Dollar Question?
Why Resource Allocation Is Only Half the Work!
Can You Answer the Million-Dollar Question?
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Roles: Two Perspectives & One Major Blind spot

Ensuring clarity and alignment on roles is one of the greatest opportunities facing any project or team – one of the greatest challenges too. Yet, the nature of roles is a blind spot for many leaders, with roles typically considered static, rather than dynamic.

Roles are about aligning the right people with the right work, so that teams can work together in the right way and achieve the right results. That sounds complex, and it is!

Here we challenge traditional perspectives regarding roles. The objective is to illuminate a blind spot and empower leaders to dynamically align roles to optimize ways of working within projects and teams.

The result can be greater agility, productivity and engagement. This dynamic clarification and alignment of roles could deliver up to 3 times the results of a more fundamental organizational restructure, but much faster and with only limited risk.

  • Challenges & Opportunities: Clarifying and adapting roles is both a significant challenge and opportunity for teams and projects.
  • Static Vs. Dynamic Roles: Organizations often see roles as static, missing the chance to adapt them for greater productivity and engagement.
  • Beyond Jobs & Roles: The traditional job description no longer accurately reflects the reality of work; roles are increasingly cross-functional, collaborative and dynamic.
  • Two Perspectives on Roles: Roles can be seen from two viewpoints:
    • Big ‘R' Roles: Formal, static roles defined by organizational charts and job descriptions.
    • Small ‘r' roles: Dynamic, collaborative roles that evolve, being shaped by teams, priorities, strategies and so on.
  • Implications:
    • Big ‘R': Contributes to silos, bureaucracy, and inflexibility.
    • Small ‘r': Enables speed, agility, and bottom-up ownership.
  • Skills Disruption: With the fast-paced change in skill requirements, static job descriptions are increasingly outdated.
  • Business Implications: Failure to adapt roles is a major blind spot that hinders performance and agility.
  • Final Takeaway: Focusing on small ‘r' roles can yield 3x more benefits compared to sticking with traditional big ‘R' organizational structures.

Beyond Jobs and Roles!

You are more than your role or your job description!  Here is why:

  • Your role as it is on paper may have little do with the reality of your daily work
  • Your role is constantly changing – as business needs and priorities change, new projects come along, etc.
  • Your role is no longer tied to one job, one team or one department / function.  You are working on a number of projects and teams that are increasingly cross-functional.
  • While you trained in one specialist area (e.g. engineering or finance) you are increasingly being called upon to input to other areas and have developed a range of skills/experience beyond your original training.
  • When working on a project/team everybody must pitch in—job titles and formal roles boundaries are less important.
  • Your ambitions go beyond your stated role – you are continually looking for opportunities to do more interesting and important work and to expand your skills, experience and network.
  • You have a unique set of talents and skills, areas that you have particular expertise and a natural talent/aptitude. This isn’t captured in your job description.

Given the above, why are most organizations still focused on the traditional role definition or job description as the means of organizing work and deploying talent?

Deloitte's 2023 Human Capital Report calls for ‘an end to jobs'. It argues that matching workers with work should be based on skills, rather than functional or hierarchical roles. This would, it suggests, help to address performance pressures, talent shortages and the need for greater agility.

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. 

Q: How well does your job description describe the work that you do?

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.'

Q: Are formal job descriptions and functional responsibilities getting in your way?

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.

Q: How effective is your organization at matching the right people to the right work?

Skill Disruption:

The average U.S. worker has had to replace or upgrade over a third (37%) of their skills over the past 5 years. That is simply to keep up with the demands of their occupation!1. One in five skills in job advertisements (22%) is an entirely new requirement2. No wonder roles are in a state of flux and that job descriptions struggle to keep pace with the daily reality of people's work. These numbers illuminate a defining characteristic of ‘knowledge work' – the requirement for ongoing learning and innovation.

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. That's because Big R is Rigid.

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.

Q: Are people allocated to projects & teams based on their skills rather than their job title/seniority, etc.?

Small ‘r' Small ‘r’ – roles that are dynamic and adapt or evolving – enable greater speed, agility and innovation. They also 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.

Skills Obsolesce: One third (33%) of the skills in 2019 jobs postings will be obsolete by 2024 – that is according to Gartner's Top HR Trends for 2023. That's another reason to adopt a dynamic approach to both roles and skills. However, the report also shows that 44% of HR leaders don't believe their organizations have compelling career paths.

SOLUTIONS & SERVICES: Here are some of the ways that our research & insights are put to work by our clients:

  1. How Skills Are Disrupting Work: The Transformational Power of Fast Growing, In-Demand Skills, Burning Glass Institute, Dec. 22, Link: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/6197797102be715f55c0e0a1/t/6388b6daaae0b3075d6c7658/1669904091972/SkillsDisruption_Final_2022.pdf []
  2. Matt Sigelman, Bledi Taska, Layla O'Kane, et al., Shifting Skills, Moving Targets, and Remaking the Workforce, BCG/Burning Glass Institute, May 23, 2022. Link: https://www.bcg.com/publications/2022/shifting-skills-moving-targets-remaking-workforce []

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