Job Titles are Killing Your Business. Here’s What to Use Instead.
In most traditional workplaces, people are obsessed with job titles like Sales Manager or HR Assistant, and prefixes like “junior” or “senior” that go with them. Unfortunately, in an organization full of bright people, operating within a strict hierarchy of titles creates a big problem: work becomes less about getting things done and more about egos and politics.
You’ve probably heard of someone at work getting a promotion based more on social affinities than on qualifications. This happens because managers and supervisors have the power to treat people as pawns on their corporate chessboard. What begins to happen in our traditional MegaCorp is that in the full knowledge of this dynamic, employees start to focus more on sucking up to their superiors than on producing exceptional, promotion-worthy work.
The result of this dynamic is bad for all parties: companies end up with sub-par managers due to unfair promotions, and a staff that’s either demotivated because they see that promotion has nothing to do with merit, or motivated only by having a fancier title that’ll feed their ego.
So if job titles actually do more harm than good, then what’s the alternative? Can an organization keep running without discrete titles that tell people what they should be doing and whom they should treat as their boss?
That’s a resounding yes!
At Blinkist, we abolished job titles and switched to a new way of defining accountabilities and getting work done. It resulted in a huge increase in productivity, greater employee satisfaction, and even shipping a previously dauntingly huge product in a matter of weeks. How did we accomplish all of this? By remaking our traditional command and control company infrastructure after a non-hierarchical system called Holacracy, a key feature of which is ditching “titles” in favor of “roles.”
Here’s the lowdown on roles and why they’re better for work than your standard job titles.
Making roles work
In a typical old school hierarchical organization, a higher-up (or a board of them) chooses a title for an individual – say, Sales Manager. Then, based on that title, they try to figure out what kind of tasks the person with the title of Sales Manager should undertake. Shockingly enough, the human in this equation never shows up until the last step in the process when the higher-up or board begins to interview and, finally, recruits someone. It then falls to the new Sales Manager to perform all of the tasks initially dreamed up by the board.
With roles, however, the process is reversed.
The first step in developing a role is to lay out all the actions that need to be taken for the company to succeed, which are called “accountabilities.” Roles are then built by creating clusters of these accountabilities. A role like B2B Sales, for example, might have accountabilities like contacting key customers and compiling sales reports.
Once all of the roles have been developed, none of those critical accountabilities you developed to begin with should be left without an owner. There should be someone accountable for every single action needed for the company to be successful. This applies to high-level accountabilities like determining the company’s vision as well as to minor details like ensuring that the coffee cups runneth over and there’s always toilet paper in the bathroom.
Why roles rule
For starters, the very process of defining roles makes the expectations and responsibilities of each role crystal-clear. This is often neglected in traditional title-oriented organizations, resulting in conflicts and frustration as managers and employees form their own implicit expectations that rarely coincide.
What’s more, in a role-based organization, people are freed to do what they’re good at – even if that means holding a number of seemingly unrelated roles.
For example, one person could well take on the seemingly distant roles of “B2B sales” and “Payroll,” as long as that person has the skills and resources to do so. Traditional organizations, on the other hand, would need two separate people to get the job done. When you consider it, this kind of cross-disciplinary approach is incredibly powerful for a modern-day organization.
Operating based on roles rather than strict titles allows your polymaths – which more and more people are due to frequent career-switching – to use all of their skills. This has pretty obvious benefits for both employees and the organizations they work for. Instead of your bright, multi-talented employees growing bored within their siloed title’s realm of influence, they’re allowed to color a bit outside the lines, applying their skills and making impact where they best can. It also may mean that the business itself has less need to recruit, hire, and train new staff, which translates to time and money saved and also leaves critical aspects of your business in the hands of people who already love and understand it.
And quite significantly, roles allow people to discuss issues dispassionately by creating distance between the individual and their work. The ego with which a job title is naturally freighted melts away and what replaces it is common sense and, usually, greater freedom to solve problems rather than protect hurt feelings.
Someone saying “The B2B role is not being fulfilled” sounds much less personal and abrasive than “The Sales Manager is not doing her job.” This distance helps people be constructive and not take criticism personally.
Roles work: we launched our most-requested feature in record time
First, a tiny bit of background: at Blinkist, we extract the key insights from bestselling nonfiction books. You can read them in about 15 minutes because they’re meant for busy people who crave new knowledge, but might only have time to read on their commutes or during lunch break. Unsurprisingly, these busy people have been asking for audio versions of our content since we launched Blinkist in early 2013.
And we kept balking.
The barriers to offering audio were twofold: a) it’s expensive, and b) it would require a staff we simply didn’t have. Then, in the last quarter of 2014, two unrelated but critical things happened:
First, we mapped out the “nice-to-have” features that, in a perfect world, we’d build in 2015. Then, we switched from discrete, restrictive titles to Holacratic “roles,” with everyone taking on the accountabilities that made sense for their skill sets.
Because people now had crystal-clear ideas of what their roles and attendant accountabilities were, they could work faster and more efficiently. Without feeling restricted to a single function within the organization, the Blinkist team was able to see how they as people with abilities – not only certain titles – could fulfill the roles that would make our nice-to-have audio dream into a next-on-the-list feature.
And we were off!
Our copywriter took on the audio recruiting role. An editor started coordinating the four narrators we found. One of our freelance writers happened to be a sound technician, so he started producing audio versions of our content in his at-home studio.
Within two months, the Blinkist audio project went from being a pipe dream to a concrete feature that we were able to offer with our December relaunch. And now, two months into 2015, what feature do people most often write us to enthuse over? You guessed it: audio! We feel pretty good about saying that it’s been a success.
For us, switching from titles to roles was a huge step in the right direction; we found that we didn’t need a separate staff to bring Blinkist audio to the world!
Nixing titles in favor of roles strips away ego, frees creativity and drive, and ups productivity. At Blinkist, it’s made staff happier, more enthusiastic, and allowed them to both learn new things and use secret skills that might never have emerged had they been jammed into the narrow confines of a job title.
And it got our #1 most-requested feature launched in record time.
We started using roles as part of a switch to our lighter, adapted version of Holacracy, (or “Blinkracy,”) and we found that it’s been amazingly powerful. Dare to imagine it now: what would YOU change if your titles weren’t holding you back?