Let’s do a quick reality check on job descriptions. Ask yourself these three questions:
- When was the last time you read your job description?
- Do you remember what it says?
- When was the last time you did something at work that you could not have done without your job description?
If your answers are 1) When I interviewed for the job, 2) Ehmmmm… not really and 3) I don’t think that has ever happened – then maybe it’s time to rethink the value of job descriptions.
I say job descriptions as they exist today amount to little more than organizational clutter and could easily be dropped altogether. Here’s why we should lose’em and what to do instead.
Why lose the job descriptions
1: Nobody reads them anyway – Do you? I thought not. I never did. Very few people do. Some companies don’t even have them, and they seem to manage just fine.
2: They’re always incomplete – Nobody’s job description contains all the crucial things they do or all their important resonsibilities. There’s always more to it than is captured on paper. If everybody in the company did only what it says in their job description, the company would soon grind to a halt.
3: They’re a hassle to create and maintain – They’re actually a lot of work to write and especially to update.
4: They’re usually obsolete – Most people’s jobs change a lot faster than their job descriptions. In many cases the job description only says what the job used to be like a long time ago – you know, way back in the last quarter.
5: They don’t help people do their jobs – I don’t think a single person has ever told me “today I accomplished something at work that I couldn’t possibly have done without my job description”. They’re close to useless in day-to-day operations.
Or have I overlooked something? Is there a reason why job descriptions are crucial (or merely useful) where you work?
What to do instead
But without job descriptions, how will people know what to do? Amazingly, most people still get their jobs done, even though the only time they’ve read their job description was 4 years ago when they signed on. Or if – gasp – their workplace doesn’t have job descriptions.
A much more productive and useful system is to let each department or team work out their responsibilities together. Here’s how a group of people who work together, eg. a department or a project team, can do something much more useful:
1: List the department’s tasks
Get the whole group together in front of a whiteboard. Give everyone a block of post-its and let each person write down their tasks and stick’em on the whiteboard, one task one each post-it. Let everybody contribute to this list. Make the list as complete as possible.
2: Ask why 3 times
For each task your department lists ask “Why do we do this?” In fact, for each item ask why three times. It might go something like this:
“Why are we making this report every week?”
“Beacuse Bob in marketing wants it”
“Why does Bob in marketing want it?”
(Somebody calls Bob)
“He gives it to the VP of marketing”
“Why does the VP of marketing want it?”
(Somebody corners the VP and asks her)
“She doesn’t really want it – she says she only ever looks at the aggregate reports”
That would be a good opportunity to stop doing that report every week. For each item on the department’s list, keep asking why until you know why your department does whatever it does. In many cases it’s obvious but some things are done simply because, well, we’ve always done it.
3: Group the tasks
Try to group tasks together that are best done together. For instance “Gathering data for sales report”, “Making sales report” and “Distributing sales report inside company” may be tasks that it makes sense to do together.
4: Let people choose tasks
Let people choose the tasks they would most like to work on. Let each employee go to the whiteboard in turn and pick out tasks they like to work on.
Of course there are two problems that can occur here:
1: A task is popular – more than one person wants to do it
This might be handled by sharing the task so people work on it together or take turns doing it. Another solution is to give the task to the person who does it the best. Or the person who needs to learn to do it. Find a solution.
2: A tasks is so unpopular that no one wants to do it
Take a close look at that task. Is it really necessary? If no, don’t do it. If it’s absolutely necessary people can take turns doing it or work on it together (shared misery is lessened misery). If there are enough unpopular tasks, each person can take one or two, so they’re about evenly disitributed. If the department almost exclusively has tasks that no one wants, then something is very wrong :o)
After all the tasks have been distributed, let each employee write a document containing his or her list of tasks and collect all the documents in a place where everyone can see them. A wiki would be a great place for these lists.
5: Repeat occasionally – Repeat the exercise once or twice a year to drop tasks that are no longer necessary, to re-assign tasks so people get some varity in their jobs and to delegate whatever new tasks may appear.
Why is this different from regular job descriptions?
- It’s more complete and a truer reflection of what people really do
- It’s easier to update
- It’s more likely to be relevant to people in their jobs
- It results in the team working together on the department’s tasks, rather than everyone working alone on “their” tasks
The result of this exercise:
- The department eliminates unnecessary tasks
- People spend more of their time working on tasks that they like and have chosen for themselves – remember that one person’s chore is another person’s dream job
- The group identifies unpopular tasks and distributes them evenly
- You avoid the situation where Johnson is always making the sales reports even though she hates doing them, while at the same time Smith, who loves making reports, is grumbling that Johnson always gets to do them
I’m betting that groups who do this or something similar will see:
- Vastly increased productivity
- Higher quality
- Lower absenteeism
- Lower employee turnover
- More happiness at work
We did it at the IT-company I co-founded and to our great surprise we found that almost every single task was taken by someone who actively wanted to do it. For example, I got to write our newsletter, ’cause I really liked that challenge while Brian managed our intranet – a task he relished. Because we liked doing what we did we did great work. If we’d switched tasks, they would have been badly or not at all.
This approach may be a bold move for some companies and a slam-dunk for others but it gives a group something far more useful, relevant and inspiring than traditional job descriptions!
What are they good for
Say it again!
In upcoming posts: Why we should also lose the org chart, the employee handbook and the business plan.
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