When roles get in the way of responsibilities

Emergn - when roles get in the way of responsibilities

Assuming that clear roles are the way to achieve clear responsibilities is a very common view. But, does it always lead to better outcomes?

Role descriptions can only really be clear and specific to the tasks, events and conditions that can be predicted and specified in advance. However, change, design and development initiatives are complex. They are by their very nature unpredictable and uncertain.

Role descriptions in this environment often dampen collaboration and stifle creativity by limiting and setting boundaries to what can be expected of individuals.

The evidence of this is ever-expanding lists of tasks, checks and activities to account for every new unanticipated event. Under pressure, the division into “this is my job” invariably leads to excuses of “it wasn’t my job…” when reality does not match the previously clear job description. Role descriptions are useful for clarity for individuals but they don’t necessarily lead to the right results.

Teams, on the other hand, can and should be responsible and accountable. They should be clearly responsible for achieving goals. Teams of overlapping skills and capabilities are more robust to deal with uncertain and unpredictable events. A team should be collectively responsible for the results and outputs.


Every time you hear “we need clearer roles” first examine if there is clarity on shared responsibility and alignment around a clear goal. Instead of wasting time on defining intricate RACI matrices and the like, spend the time and energy on visualizing the work of the team, aligning around a common goal and agreeing on the principles of team dynamics.