How unclear roles can damage your teams performance (and what you can do about it)

Roles and responsibilities can cause confusion and upset in our teams unless we take the time to openly discuss them. But, it can be easy to solve when we knew how to shine a light on the issue, here's how.

Coaching is often described as “holding up a mirror”. So that teams and individuals can reflect on what they see. It’s not about impart “right” or “wrong”. Coaching is not limited to only managers or supervisors. Coaching can be ran and facilitated by anyone in a team. 

But, we can use coaching to remove some of the issues we face with roles. To do so, first we must consider what a role is.

A role is: The function assumed or part played by a person or thing in a particular situation.

The difficult part about roles is not that they’re in some way bad, or evil. It’s that they’re fluid. A role in one company can differ from the same role in another company. A role in one team can differ from the same role in another team. And a role can even change within a team on a daily basis depending on external factors. All this fluidity means that roles themselves can often cause more harm than good.
You can imagine roles within a team like a Venn diagram. Each collection of tasks that the team performs is a circle in the diagram. Some circles overlap and we share tasks with our colleagues, which can be confusing. Or worse: the diagrams don’t overlap in certain places and we end up with tasks “falling through the cracks”.
Most issues with team working aren’t solved by small tweaks in our day-to-day work. We need to pull the metaphorical stop chord and fix the issue before continuing.

Running a roles alignment session

I first came into contact with this session when I started a new project. My colleague was insistent that before we do anything else we must run a role alignment session. I was a little confused why she was so insistent and a little sceptical. Yet I found myself intrigued nonetheless.
We spent the next hour or so adding post-its to a wall of all the different tasks that our team would complete. Next we went through and allocated the tasks to our names and discussed them as we went. I’m sure it’s no surprise that there were some tasks that seemed to land between several people. And there were tasks still left in the “no-mans land”: not allocated to anyone. What followed was an enlightened discussion on team strengths, weaknesses and interests.
Since that session I’m always itching to run this type of session (as my colleague was at the time). Now that I’m armed with the understanding of the depth of insight that it can create.
Below is an explanation of how we performed the session so that you can also give it a go. It’s worth noting that anyone (of any experience) can run this type of session. The session would work well when a team first forms or a new member joins. Or any time you feel you need a refresher.

Step 1: List all team-member tasks

List all the tasks the team would perform. Everything. No matter how small or insignificant. You can do this part with either sticky notes or pens on a board. Sticky notes are better, though.

Step 2: List all team-member names

Now you have all the tasks you want to write all your names up on the board, spaced out.

Step 3: Divide tasks between team-members

Begin by going through the tasks and assign them to the names that you believe would pick up the task.

Step 4: Discuss

The final step is to discuss what you see. Remembering that there is no “right” or “wrong”. The purpose is to illuminate and discuss.
A tweak would be to add sticky dots to the equation. Such as: Red dots for allocated task post-its that you think are incorrectly assigned . Or yellow dots for notes you’re surprised by, etc.

Turning the mirror on the team

Anyone on your team has the capability to facilitate such a session. Remember that the goal is only to highlight inconsistencies and mismatched expectations. Give it a go and see what you find out. 

For your next retrospective why not switch things up and run a role alignment session? Let me know how you get on.

Lou Bichard