The Future of Work Part 2 - People Unboxed


This blog series is a triptych on alternatives that disrupt traditional Human Resource methods with concepts that move us towards the Future of Work.  Read Part 1 here, Being High Performing versus The Performance Review. 


The topic in the cross hairs today is The Position or Job Description, and the notion that Job Descriptions lead you down a path to performing that role, and that is maybe the worst outcome you could get.


Try to hire anyone in most organisations that are over 1000 people and you’ll find step number 1 is to engage HR with your Position Description. As the numbers creep up you’ll find another process standing in your way which is the Job Grading process.


Akin to a Business Requirement Document it seems if someone has created a template for something, we just can’t resist filling it in. And just like documenting Business Requirements that leads us down the path to all the wrong behaviours.


In the different roles I’ve had in my career, once in the door I’ve rarely returned to the Position Description to see what it is I should be doing, in my case it’s been a largely wasteful activity to have had one. Yet when meeting people for the first time, when it got to my turn to announce my label I proudly did:  ‘Head of Application Development and Management’, ‘Head of Solutions Delivery’, ‘Head of Digital Engineering’, ‘Engineering Manager, ‘Program Manager’, ‘Partner’, or ‘Consultant’.


In all cases I was still me, doing my thing, trying to get better at things I wasn’t good at, trying to build on what I was good at, but for some quaint reason we play funny games with introductions, fluffed up titles and status claiming at grown up companies.


Beyond Introduction Cluedo, I have several other beefs with Job Descriptions leading me to think they need to be relics of the past to get us to a new Future of Work more rapidly.


Job Titles and Role Descriptions enforce hierarchy


I’ve noticed as companies get bigger nice flat meritocratic structures give in to the implementation of a hierarchy of ranks. Developers who were happy to to be Developers, now want to know if they are Junior, Senior, or Lead as per the Position Description and Job Grading. Who’s calling the shots on my team? What do I need to do to progress and be better? Can’t someone just put it in a convenient spreadsheet for me?


Like an army, ranks within role types are useful tools for understanding where you play your part in a team and can shorten decision making time, but what opportunities does it hobble for the individual and the organisation? 


Ideology of equality becomes harder to sustain. What once felt like a team where we all play an equal part, becomes a competition of who progresses faster up the hierarchy. Effort that you used to put into getting better at your craft, has to be siphoned into influencing people more senior to you. That effort is organisational waste. 


Job Titles and Role Descriptions encourage people to move up


Once you step on that conveyer belt of rank you are on your way up, my friend. Ranks are great for helping you see a path of progression and how to get to the next step. I’m sure you’ve seen many examples of team members attaining the next step in an organisation. Graduate developers become Junior, Juniors take off their training wheels to become Senior. Business Analysts become Project Managers, Tech Leads become Engineering Managers.


But graded ranks limit other productive movement around an organisation, such as lateral moves or wholesale career changes.  Cast your mind back over your career and count how many times Developers became HR team members, how many Telephone Agents became Software Testers, how many Finance managers became Delivery Leads? Yes there are always a few but if you’re like me you’ll remember them as outlier career moves. 


Less than 1% of people I’ve worked with over the years have achieved a lateral move or career change within the same company. A far bigger percentage have achieved this by leaving a company, and there’s the rub. The concept of Job titles and Role Descriptions box people in to a rigid container of what their capabilities are and how they are viewed in their company. Once hired we assume they can do only what it says on the tin.


Boxes need describing and boxes need filling


Once we have implemented Job Titles and Descriptions, we need to adhere to them. Jobs need to be described, thoroughly and with competencies, ‘The Purpose’ of the role highlighted, then bullet points of all the major accountabilities and responsibilities listed. If it’s part of recruiting for the role many of the attributes of the successful candidate will be listed, such as 'Go ahead attitude, team player who likes to work and play hard'.


Once you as a hiring manager have listed out your dream person’s skills and attributes, recruitment will set about finding you the ‘perfect match’. If you’ve asked for what you really want it will contain a bunch of soft stuff that’s hard to quantify: 'Someone who can bring team gel. Someone who can balance the macho personalities I have on my team. Someone who is introverted because I have majority extroverts. An aspiring leader who is happy to learn the ropes. Someone who has an eye for the user'. All of these soft qualities are terribly hard to find in a person with the easy-to-quantify hard skills, and so get pushed down the priority list. Instead “Find me an experienced Ruby Developer” becomes the primary goal. Ruby developers are scarce, and beggars can’t be choosers so this is where the Role Descriptions start and finish, all other attributes are relegated to the ‘nice to have’ section, down the bottom with bullet point statements about ‘Our amazing culture’.


Keeping people in their boxes


By describing the box so deftly, real measures are obfuscated. What are the real indicators of why Jimmy got that next level role? Often it’s not the things that are tightly described in the Position Description.


Once I had an opportunity to hire a Delivery Lead and several internal applicants applied. The person we promoted into the role was fairly new to the company, new to his current role - which was BA - but we knew he was the perfect person to build a great cohesive team in our delivery department.  He didn’t tick many of the boxes and we had to put caveats on our caveats to promote him. His fit was more to do with his personality, strengths and resilience and it’s match to our present need. I needed someone with great intuition, humility and openness to learning, who had a burning desire to tackle a hard problem. Our templated Job Description called for a Delivery Lead with 3 years experience leading an Agile team.


According to our rigid Position Description, our candidate had the least propensity to succeed at this job, in practice he absolutely nailed it, taking a new team in a tumultuous environment, creating cohesion and defusing conflict, with one eye fixed steadily on the content and delivery of their work.


Although this was a happy result, we had to break all of the conveyer belt rules, twist all language and spend tedious meetings discussing salary bands in order to promote the individual into the role. The structure and rules conspired against what was the right decision. 


It’s not impossible to break rules and ignore process, most hiring managers learn to play these games pretty quickly, I think the greater damage is done to aspiring individuals who on viewing the rules and structure, map their career progression in good faith, only to end up in a cookie cut shape of where their company led them to believe they should be, rather than where they ought, or want, to be. 


The salary banding discussion persisted and eventually caused frustration for me and the individual when I couldn't reward the outcomes he was able to generate within the strict band for his years of experience. This  particular dysfunction generally results in the person leaving to get their desired conditions met elsewhere. I’m sure this sounds familiar to many readers who know their worth.  


The future of work will no longer reward such rigid, single path progression and workplaces should take steps to retain their people rather than lose them to better conditions and challenges that can be met elsewhere. 


I believe these structures and processes are built from the good intention of having to cater for a mass working populous, where it’s convenient to slot all players into a neatly gridded matrix. This model is dying, in the future the performance of companies will rely less on traditions such as networking and influencing your way up a chain of command,  sticking to your one trained expertise for your career won't be good enough. Our world of increasing complexity will value flexibility, curiosity, adaptability and will expect our organisations to mirror those attributes in the way they hire and organise their people. 


I think it’s better for our future facing companies to be ahead of these ideas, experimenting with alternatives to Position Descriptions and Job Ranks for the recruitment and development of people into the workplace and here are just a few ideas to try instead. 


Jobs market - Internal gig Economy

Steps to attain new role:

  1. See Advertised role on internal jobs board

  2. Approach hiring manager discretely

  3. Obtain your line manager’s permission to apply

  4. Get HR involved

  5. Have your manager talk to the hiring manager

  6. Go through formal interview process

  7. Be successful in interview and attain new role


You probably also know this concept as an internal Secondment process, or a lateral move or promotion. But if your company’s version of this process sounds a little like the above steps then, I’m sorry to say you are putting direct barriers to flexible movement into your system of work, prepare to have your workforces adaptability slow to a glacial pace. 


People need to be free to pursue their career desires, above that you need to build an environment to foster movement.  Exploring opportunities, dropping in to other teams to try working with them first, allowing for choice and self selection into teams are all approaches to try. Permission has to be implicit and encouraged, without onerous processes involving several parties in the way.  


If this poses problems for sustaining interest and engagement on current work, then it’s better for Leaders to solve those problems then live with teams of disengaged people trapped in their current roles. 


Grow your workforce of the future


There’s a war on talent. Gartner CIO report of 2016 states "Talent has now been recognized globally as the single biggest issue standing in the way of CIOs achieving their objectives. The biggest talent gaps are around information — big data, analytics, and information management — followed by business knowledge/acumen. Worryingly, many of these gaps are the same ones CIOs cited four years ago.”


The talent war hasn’t changed for six years. If we had hired for Culture, Diversity, and Behaviour six years ago those individuals could have closed these cited gaps for us, learning and acquiring skills in the intervening years.  Companies need to evolve into learning organisations. Our University curricula is not adapting fast enough to produce enough graduates with requisite skills to service demand, and the good news is that local domain knowledge is still a very valuable asset.  So Re - assessing the workplace need and taking a more flexible view of roles will equip workplaces of the future with abundant talent. 


In a small start up everyone can do everything. My business partner and I are our own finance team, sales team, marketing, delivery and HR rolled into two people. Turns out there’s very little that can’t be learned, and companies with this growth mindset can foster and retain people, with engagement and loyalty as positive side effects. 


In this new world the Leader's role is to cultivate well rounded individuals and resilient cross functional teams. 


How many Developers do you know who could do well to spend some time experiencing other roles in their company, before reaching the heights of senior, lead and manager? It should be incumbent on our Leaders to role model broad skills and adaptive attributes over and above a relentless push up the promotion chain. 


What is the quality of feedback to the individual? Do Leaders shy away from addressing poor behaviour if an individual’s technical skills are unbelievably good? Do they curtail an attitude of arrogance when technologists refer to everyone else as 'The Business' or do they create truly diverse cross functional teams who are solving problems together? Are problems resolved by escalation up a hierarchy or is it the result of fast, respectful and egalitarian communication? In other words, Leaders must abolish the 'pulling of rank' as a decision making tool. 


Leaders are the curators of teams, mixing up a perfect blend that works. Knowing what kind of personalities and attributes (above skills) to add to the mix to get a great outcome, and nurturing safety and trust in those groups. 


Adaptive role identification when growing


If the talent war is perpetual then supplementing Growing your own Future Workforce and having an internal vibrant Job Market,  would be undertaking an analysis of what’s required in the team or role over replacing like for like.  Instead of jumping to fill a role when someone resigns, perform some analysis of where the gaps are and why, a considered view of goals and outcomes company wide should be undertaken when teams change. 


My theory is that having no Job Descriptions will  lead you to inhabiting a need, filling a real gap, and doing what’s required. The Job Description is actually a barrier to you finding out any of those things and having you blindly follow what appears to be the problem on the surface. Is it really the problem that you are down one Developer? How do we know? What would the alternatives look like?


Hiring people is a long term process and matching people to roles is fraught with error, can we adapt our ideas of what is needed ABOVE thinking of people as bums on seats? Instead of thinking each new product idea needs a dedicated team to build it out quickly, can we constrain ourselves to tiny teams to prove out experiments first, and only then ask, what would it take to go faster?  Maybe each new product idea fuelled with the luxury of 6 developers in a hierarchy would hammer out all your features faster, but does the world really need more features and apps? 


Empire-building techniques of getting ahead must be left in the past. Leaders must act to reduce the amount of communication a team is burdened with and teams must be free to identify what they need in order to succeed. If your team make-up is a variant of:

1 x Product Owner

1 x Delivery Lead

1 x BA

1 x UXer

1 x Tester

4 x Developers then you’re already considered a 'Traditional Agile Delivery Team' and a little on the cumbersome side. 


I see more blending of roles within smaller numbers these days, and you’re more likely to hear 'We are 4 people, and this is the product we own' from the most agile adaptable teams. 


There will always be people on a team that get impatient for change and those that want to stay put for a while. This means there can be a core of stability as well as  a moving flexible element in all companies, rather, I can’t think of a company size that can’t adapt to it’s own needs, if there are humans at the core of the workforce. Those that can master it quickly and continuously will win.


Advertising roles and recruiting in the workplace of the future


What would it be like attracting new people into these organisations? Well I think one improvement would be to advertise for behaviours first, and relegate skills to the bottom of the Position Description. Or better still, if I am right about PD's being a source of waste, what would we do in an absence of that waste? 


Some predict a rise of ‘Competency Marketplaces’ and an increase in the use of technology as a matching service between the competencies people have and organisations want. This makes me feel a little sad and skeptical. I would never hire someone based solely on their CV so why would I negate any human element in the hiring of people and leave it to artificial intelligence? 


Through dent of fate I once knew two excellent candidates that were shortlisted for the same role.  I had an inkling that one had experience that was slightly more suitable. I have no idea if her personality and behaviours were better suited though.  It’s a more nuanced thing, it depends on what the company already has in the team and what changes they are looking to bring. A less experienced person may be a better fit in order to bring in some other dimension the team is lacking.  The boxing into Position Descriptions makes it less transparent.  First you need to align the candidate to their current box and then your box. You’re cutting off their ability to unbox many elements of themselves such as personality and behaviours, those elements are not sought and often not uncovered. 


A friend of mine looking for a role recently advertised himself like this:

"Hi all, I'm looking for a short term contract, up to about 6 months.  Would love something interesting around team design or coaching portfolio improvement, but am equally happy to help with team coaching, or leading delivery across one or more teams.  Can also do training, and have a number of courses created and ready to teach.  Can start tomorrow”

This was a more human and authentic description of his abilities than ‘Certified Agile Coach and Scrum Master with 20 years experience looking for a contract Delivery Lead role or similar’. 


Whether you believe that recruiting of the future will use more technology driven decision making or more human interaction, I think it’s clear that elements of our current system’s days are numbered. If we have to maintain Job Titles and Role Descriptions in the mid term for recruiting externally, I am energetically counselling companies to abandon them for the employee the minute they walk through the door. 



Let’s Unbox our people


Just like in our blog on Being High Performing we are looking for future facing companies to try new ways of working in these areas of HR, we are looking for volunteer organisations and teams willing to abandon traditional Job Titles and Position Descriptions.  Together we will design a new experiment to Unbox People from their Job Descriptions and bring some honesty to this area. We will ask ourselves to confront some long overdue questions around recruitment processes; What would you do, if you could do what you want?  What if the skills you really need are already inside your organisation?

Tune in next time when we disrupt learning and development within organisations.