When I ask clients or students what they think the #1 solution for organizational health is, they say things like communication, time management, teamwork, and having a goal. While these are all important components of healthy organizations, the #1 solution for organizational health surprises most people. Survey says …

Clear roles and responsibilities.

The Significance of Clear Roles and Responsibilities

The lack of clear roles and responsibilities yields many symptoms that are often misdiagnosed. Leaders tend to focus on dealing with these symptoms without realizing how they are part of a bigger problem. In fact, about 80% of organizational dysfunction can be traced to unclear roles and responsibilities. Some examples of roles and responsibilities include:

  • Standards and expectations
  • Defined job duties
  • Decision-making processes
  • Protocols, procedures, processes, and policies
  • A clear chain of command
  • Sponsorship
  • Written documentation

When these elements are vague or non-existent, organizations fall apart. Work stalls, confusion ensues, conflict escalates, waste increases, and energy drains.

The Impact of Unclear Roles and Responsibilities

Let’s look at some common misdiagnoses and some go-to strategies that usually don’t resolve the issue:

  • Two teams are assigned to work together on a larger project. Team A is responsible for the final product, and Team B is responsible for improving the processes to produce the product. Team A withholds information, avoids Team B, and generally blows them off. The project manager keeps telling them to work it out themselves using mediation, communication, and conflict resolution skills.
  • A leader tries to push through a change initiative but continually gets pushback from colleagues who say things like, “You’re not my boss.” Despite senior leadership endorsing the initiative and thinking it’s a great idea, the leader can’t get any traction. They try various change management strategies, but none seem to work.
  • Meetings don’t seem to accomplish much. Participants have lots of dialogue and ideas, but afterward, nothing comes from the conversations. On top of that, the meetings are unfocused, go over the time allotted, and include people who don’t even need to be there. People give feedback on how everyone should stick to the agenda and come away with action items, but it just doesn’t seem to happen.
  • Two colleagues are developing an idea together. Shawna, an engineer, is feeling drained from trying to give input that doesn’t seem to land. She also doesn’t want to overstep her bounds. Mario, a builder, doesn’t understand why Shawna is even involved given that she isn’t offering much practical guidance and that he is pretty confident in what he’s doing. Balls seem to keep being dropped. Despite trying to take accountability for their respective mistakes and using conflict resolution strategies, time is getting short without much to show for their effort.

These scenarios are like the story of Alexander the Great who, instead of trying to untie the Gordian knot, simply cut through it with a stroke of his sword. Instead of using various skill-based approaches, what’s really needed are clear roles and responsibilities.

The Way Forward: Clear Roles and Responsibilities

As I mentioned in the list above, there are various aspects of roles and responsibilities such as sponsorship, clear job duties, and established decision-making processes. Let’s revisit the above scenarios and see how some simple clarification addresses the core issue.

  • Instead of the project manager forcing the teams to work out the issue themselves, they recognize that, as the manager of the project, they are in a sponsorship role. That means that it’s their job to set standards and expectations for project outcomes and define what each team’s role is in relation to the project. They need to make it clear to Team A how they expect them to work with and include Team B. This sets the guidelines and foundation for the teams to work together and establish a clear protocol for the project.
  • The leader pushing through the change initiative needs active sponsorship from senior leadership, not just an endorsement. The leader needs to ask them to step in and publicly sanction the initiative and set expectations for engagement. Although this doesn’t (and shouldn’t) be in a Draconian way, some basic explanation for the “why” and encouraging participation lets everyone know that the initiative isn’t going away with some authority behind it.
  • The meetings need the role of a clear leader who also assigns roles such as notetakers and timekeepers, creates the agenda, and aligns both the content and stakeholders to the desired outcomes. The team needs to decide on (or at least be aware of) what their decision-making process to move forward with ideas they discuss. They also need someone to capture action items based on those decisions, and someone to follow up with them.
  • The two colleagues need to create an agreement for how they’ll work together and who will do what. Given her area of expertise, instead of wondering how to engage with Mario, Shawna can present approaches for how she’ll provide feedback and direction (format, frequency, etc.) to Mario and get his agreement on those approaches (or negotiate). Each can clarify what they need from the other person, and agree on who will do what at each step of the project. They can also decide how they’d like to make decisions for moving forward and stick to the process, as well as who will capture and follow up on actions.

Diagnosing and Discovering Roles and Responsibilities

Again, most dysfunction and difficulty stems back to unclear roles and responsibilities. The trick is figuring out how to clarify them. In times of trouble, below are some questions to help clarify. Most of the time, the answers will lead you to the solution.

  • Can each person who is involved describe what their role is to everyone else?
  • Can each person who is involved describe what everyone else’s role is?
  • What is the process for making decisions?
  • What is the process for tracking actions?
  • Who is the clear sponsor (the person/people who can impose formal consequences should it come to that)? What level of engagement is needed from them?
  • Does everyone know the standards, expectations, processes, or rules that are expected of everyone involved? If they don’t exist, who will create, communicate, and enforce them?