How to clarify team roles and accountabilities–and let go of hierarchy.

Organizations realize that innovation and engagement come from removing hierarchy. Job titles get in the way of growth–they are used as currency, not to drive clarity.

Titles define status and compensation, not how people contribute to the team. Moving from roles to titles accelerates collaboration by clarifying roles and accountabilities.

What?

This exercise will help your organization or team:- Define the roles and accountabilities required for success- Clarify responsibilities and expectations to increase collaboration and performance.

It starts by capturing all the work that needs to be done and clarify who will be responsible for achieving what.

But, first, some clarifications.

What Are Roles & Accountabilities?

Roles:

An organizational entity used to define certain functions within a team. The definition of a Role includes a Purpose to express and Accountabilities to perform.

Think in terms of roles, not souls. One role can be played by many people. And most people will play more than one role.

Roles are vital:
When Seeking Consensus: “Is it clear what Role holds the authority to make this decision?”
When Involving Everyone: “What Roles need to be involved and why?”
When There’s Fusion: “What Role is it that needs to be consulted, and what Role is asking?”

Accountabilities:

Accountabilities are expectations placed on a role for doing something. Accountabilities focus on the desired outcome, not on the tasks, per se.

A job description is about what you have to do. Accountabilities are about the impact of your work, your tasks–how you achieve your end goals– might change, though.

They usually begin with an -ing verb to convey that it’s an ongoing activity (and not a one-time thing). For example:

Delivering webinars
Facilitating the Circle’s required meetings
Developing and enacting all processes needed to effectively solicit, assess, and fund external projects with grants

Purpose:

The Role Purpose clarifies the identity and intention of a Role. The Purpose orients the action of a Role even absent any other explicit Accountabilities, policies, or resources.

Step-by-Step to Define Roles & Accountabilities

0. Set up

Depending on the size of the team, this exercise can between one or three hours (or even more). Bring several copies of the “From Titles to Roles Canvas” (download link below).

You will also need a large whiteboard or wall to collect all the roles.
Launch the exercise by explaining why the team or organization wants to eliminate titles and shift to roles instead.

Note: you can use this exercise to clarify roles among your team without necessarily removing formal titles. However, the biggest value lies in doing both.

1. Start where you are

What’s the work that needs to be done?

Start by creating an extensive list of all the things the team needs to accomplish. Focus on important activities, not minutia.

You can do this ahead of the workshop, to save some time. It helps to have HR and/or Team Leaders to ask their staff to provide this and consolidate all responses.

2. Focus on the work, not the people

  • Ask each person to focus on their own work. them list all the roles they play (project manager, designer, developer, HR person, customer support, etc.
  • Put all the roles together on the whiteboard or wall.
  • Group similar titles. Avoid duplications or similar titles. Consolidate different levels under one title (for example, merge “jr. designer” and “sr. designer” into “designer”).

3. Outline the accountabilities

Ask each individual to list all the key things their role is responsible for.

Remember, accountabilities are about outcomes, not activities.
Then ask them to rank them in priority order. Choose the top 5-7.

Note: use post-its and add them to the “From Titles to Roles Canvas.

4. Refine & consolidate

Ask people with similar roles to integrate their accountabilities into one canvas. The idea is to have one per role.

Consolidate those that are similar (people might use different words to refer to the same accountability).

Then refine and end with 5-7 accountabilities per role max.

5. Reflect on the gap

Review the original list that captured all tasks & accountabilities.

Make sure all key tasks or responsibilities are assigned to one role. If not, build a separate list with the accountabilities that have been left behind. Write each on a separate Post-it.

Ask each person to present their role and accountabilities. One at-a-time.
The rest of the team can suggest if there other accountabilities that need to be included in this role. The role owner can accept them or decline.

In the end, all the key tasks and accountabilities must be included in one role. If not, they either need to be deleted or negotiation needs to start. All accountabilities must have an owner.

Another path is to create a new role to absorb the ‘missing’ accountabilities. The team must decide if someone has the bandwith to absorb a new role or if it makes sense to hire a new employee.

Remember: roles don’t equal souls.

Finish the session with each individual completing their own canvas (one per role they play).

From Titles to Roles Canvas

This canvas is perfect to capture the group discussion but, also to have each person completing their own. In that case, they need to add their name and current title.

From titles to roles canvas image a tool to identify roles and accountabilities within a team
From Titles to Roles Canvas by Gustavo Razzett, Liberationist

Download Your Free Copy of the Canvas.

The Canvas also includes a space to capture an “AKA” (Also Known As) to include a fun, creative name for the title. Though this is optional, it creates more engagement.

Organizations such as Disney or Make-a-wish use creative titles with very positive results.

Facilitation Tips

I strongly advise hiring external facilitation to run this exercise. The steps are simple, but team dynamics can get weird. Usually, people tend to re-write their job descriptions in a different format rather than changing the approach.

Shifting from titles to roles requires a change of mindset. It’s not a new format, but a new way of thinking.

Some people see the potential; others feel the loss of authority. Navigating emotions and tensions is more effective when you’ve been there, done that.

Feel free to contact me if you need advice or help to facilitate a session with your team.

Either way, here are some facilitation tips for you to consider if you want to manage this practice on your own.

Caution: Don’t Forget the Why

Letting go of titles is not an easy thing.

Prepare the team before launching this new approach. What’s the purpose that drives the shift from titles to roles? How will authority be distributed once roles are defined?

Moving from titles to roles drives clarity and enthusiasm. Avoid turning it into a fad.

Avoid the following pitfalls:

Roles:

Make sure the roles defined are necessary and not just functions that people do. Roles are not titles. They should express seniority or managerial functions. Roles define functions, not power structures.

Accountabilities:

  • Accountabilities starting with “Enforcing…” or “Ensuring…”
  • Accountabilities starting with “Collaborating with…”, “Working with…”
  • Accountabilities starting with “Overseeing…”, “Supervising…”, “Managing…”
  • Accountabilities starting with “Approving…”

Additional Reading

The Problem with Job Titles (And How to Fix It)

Why Job Titles Get in the Way of Growth

People Don’t Need Empowerment (They Need This Instead)