Too much of anything, even role clarity is bad!

dirtyglassesA common complaint heard in many organizations is that there is insufficient understanding of what each distinct role within a project is responsible for.

This concern usually stems from one of two symptoms:

  • Activities are skipped or delayed because no one wishes to perform them
  • Turf disputes resulting from team members performing activities which others believe are their responsibility

When these concerns are heard often enough, the natural tendency is to attempt to introduce greater clarity regarding the responsibilities and accountabilities of each role. Detailed job descriptions, RASCI tables and similar tools are developed and published to try to overcome the challenges of role ambiguity.

However this logical approach often generates the unintended consequence of reinforcing positions and increasing the likelihood of perceived “stepping on toes” or “balls being dropped”. This seemingly provides greater support for further role refinement making things worse, not better.

No matter how much you try to refine roles and responsibilities, the uniqueness and uncertainty that are the essence of projects requires versatility.

This doesn’t mean that your methodology shouldn’t provide some guidance on what each role is responsible for as we want flexibility and not anarchy. However, the focus should be on principles and not rigid standards.

How much detail is required really depends on project approach and team size. Waterfall approaches lend themselves to greater role clarity but even with those, too much clarity will lead to challenges during handoffs or whenever a new activity emerges which doesn’t fit cleanly into someone’s job description. Large teams will also benefit from more role clarity but there is a fine balance between avoiding chaos and encouraging group think.

On agile projects, less is more – we want team members who are specialists but who also have the interest and capability to perform other tasks. This is one of the reasons why agile encourages the use of smaller teams – the seamless blending and transition of activities between team members becomes progressively more challenging as team size increases.

Teams are intended to produce more than just the sum of their parts and chasing the Holy Grail of role clarity might just generate the opposite outcome.

Categories: Agile, Process Peeves, Project Management | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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