Resolving the Tyranny of Role Unclarity

Funny thing. Everyone I know comes from a zany family. But no one I know is the zany one. What are the odds, right?

Either my radar for the unzany is impeccable, or someone’s doing the math wrong.

I was thinking about this last week on a flight home from a client offsite. I’d just run a day-long Roles and Responsibilities session for an Engineering leadership team.

This was a team of high performing leaders – but not a high-performing leadership team. Which again calls the math into question.

But this team’s fundamental issue was the absence of role clarity. High performing leaders without clear boundaries, accountabilities and decision rights do not deliver collective delight. They argue. They drop balls, they compete for resources, they cause rework and inefficiency.

It was as if the team was in the kitchen. They’d bought all the ingredients but no one printed the recipe. The cake should have been delicious. But it tasted like conflict and unrest.

What struck me in our session was the excess of blame flying and the dearth of accountability taken. Like everyone in that room looked around and saw only zany uncles. But no one was the zany uncle.

Again. Math.

So I asked everyone to do a metaphorical hat swap. As in hey – chief developer, you are now the product lead. And product lead, you’re now the scrum master. And so on and so forth.

And here’s where we broke through.

Suddenly – forced to see the world through a different lens – leaders were seeing their own “zaniness” – their norms, habits, defaults, and practices that may have been creating challenge or tension for others on the team.

With blinders off and minds open, we had a tremendously productive day. And if role unclarity is challenging your team, here are the key elements of a productive conversation to help get you to resolution.

1. Name your strengths. The best solutions are built on a foundation of strengths – individual and collective. Name them so you can leverage them. Your solutions will be more impactful.

2. Spot and prioritize pain points. Discuss as a team how, when, and why points of friction are arising. What are the moments? What triggers the drop or fight or rework? Articulate the points of tension that must be resolved. We can’t solve what we can’t see.

3. Charter key roles. For reach core role in the organization, capture the following elements – and make sure (a) all critical elements are captured somewhere, and (b) there are no key points of overlap:

  • Its unique core value to the organization (i.e., its superpower)
  • Its key activities (what work it should be doing…and not doing)
  • Its key decisions (whether own or inform – where perspective is critical)
  • Its key skills or capabilities (be discerning!)
  • Its measures of success (and do they align with other roles?)

4. Pressure test your charters. Choose a few “pain point” scenarios (identified in Step 2). Now map out a refreshed process or approach, using the choices made in your Role Charters. This helps ensure your decisions on paper will serve real-life scenarios. Revise as needed.

5. Commit to communicating and implementing. How will this leadership team collectively commit to disseminating these decisions and holding their teams accountable to playing these newly defined roles? Capture the key choices, what’s exciting about them, and how they will serve everyone’s goals and overall experience.

Related: There’s a 5-Alarm Fire To Put Out