Team members function together like organs of human body: Part 1 Responsibility Structure

The human body functions based on a very simple principle – every organ has its own job to do, but in case something goes wrong, there is a possibility to divide the lost function between other organs. You break your legs – you can crawl with your hands, someone loses his sight – other senses step up to the task. Because we have such an intricate regulator as our nervous system, we are never completely down even when we are. It creates a clear Responsibility Structure of body organs.

Successful teams must also have one in order to succeed both in their daily functions and in contingency scenarios.

For further discussion it is important to explain the use of “Responsibility Structure” instead of “Roles and Responsibilities” which is an accepted term in many companies. Academically speaking, “Responsibility” means what you do, and “Role” means where you stand in relation to other roles. But nowadays the concept of “Role” lost most of its meaning by being transformed into “”Titles”. It is common situation when in different companies of the same industry people can perform the same duties, while having different titles or Role names.

Marketing companies have discovered that long ago, when they started to analyze why generic lists of names and titles of the perspective clients give such a low return. They have realized that there is very little correlation between how the person is being called and his or her REAL duties. So, Responsibility simply means what a person does or, to be more precise, what function a person performs as a team member. And Responsibility Structure embodies the whole composition of all the function, altogether with the rules of INTERACTION between them. In a human body, interaction between functions of all organs is orchestrated by the nervous system. Shut down the nervous system and the body is practically dead, even though its separate parts are intact.

As in the nervous system, responsibility structure is all about function recognition and conveying messages between them in accordance to established rules of engagement. As long as everything is OK, it’s hard to appreciate the importance of this process. Responsibility structure comes to the test every time anything goes not according to the plan. It reveals itself both in minor events, such as when someone unexpectedly called in a sick day or when a meeting took an unexpected turn, and in much larger contingencies, such as massive layoffs or project budget being cut in half.

An effective responsibility structure should provide team members with clear guidelines to as much as possible “what if” situations. For example, a decision has been made on your team meeting not to accept any additional request for changes from any other team without adjunct budget. To help your team to enforce it you have provided the team members with mandate to use your name and redirect any “unhappy client” to you. This is a good example of establishing an explicit rule of engagement. It outlines the message, the boundaries it works within and empowers the team members to perform their job unhindered. Of course, the specific set of such rules will embody your own personal style of management and I’ll discuss different management styles in my future posts. These rules of engagement need to be transparent to everyone on the team, while being applicable in real situations and easy to learn. Thus they will facilitate the decision-making process on all levels in the team, both vertically and horizontally. Which brings us to the next important issue of building a Responsibility Structure – team’s Hierarchy.

The more REAL responsibility structure will resemble the hierarchical structure of your team, the less friction and conflicts the team will experience. As mentioned before, real responsibility lies with people you’re actually going to get answers from, and not with those that just hold the title. Company’s hierarchy can be roughly delineated into four categories: (1) workers, (2) leads, (3) managers/ directors, and (4) VP’s/ CO’s. Each company has its own customs and culture. I’ve seen one company with four steps in between a worker and CEO, and another company with at least ten intermediate levels. Companies also tend to add wage and titles gradation, which meets the need of employees’ promotion (or at least giving a sense of such), but increases the complexity of communication tremendously. In Team Building context, to induce efficiency and to make communication as clear as possible, the number of levels in responsibility structure has to be functionally justified. This means that if you can deliver without adding an additional level, why add it?

Essentially, the three tiers’ division into workers, leads and managers ideally meets the requirements of majority of the teams. Each one of these functionally outlined layers has its own challenges, but all of them are interdependent and are connected through the responsibility structure. You cannot control the hierarchy of the whole company, but you definitely can impact the hierarchy of your team. Having minimal hierarchy coupled with understanding of responsibility structure will make your team stronger than others, less efficient teams.

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