The role-based organization

Steve Pruneau

Want to know what the future of work looks like?  It’s a role-based organization.  It’s not a rigid hierarchy where job titles and authority are handed down from position holders above.

You may ask, how can this be the future?  Won’t we end up with disorganized mess?

Hardly.  This is the future because it’s more efficient.  Role-based organizations deliver results faster, at higher quality and lower cost.  We get better results from role-based organizations because people self-organize more quickly when they are not told how to do things or even details of “what” needs to be done.

All we need to know is, in general terms, what needs to be accomplished.  Even with the “what”, our participation in an organization generally brings insight into what ought to be done to advance our goals.  At minimum, all of us are better at getting something done when we are free to execute within general boundaries of “what” we need to accomplish, without someone higher up the organization.

And then you may postulate, “Won’t people in positions of authority lose a lot of power and prestige?”  Yes.  In a role based organization, direct authority is unnecessary and prestige is earned by effective performance rather than granted by someone higher up the chain of command.

For everyone who has enjoyed a long reign of power and prestige in a hierarchical organization, you can see your future by answering the following question:

“If people weren’t required to work under my leadership, would they continue?”

Answer 1: “NO, they would turn their backs and leave me in an empty room or vote me off the island.”  If this is your answer, then the future doesn’t look good for you.  You may still enjoy a few more years, maybe even a decade or two, in your current organization as you take a long slow grind into the history books, the same way that Soviet central planning didn’t make it.

Answer 2:  “YES, most would continue with me and I would continue with them.”  Then you will likely enjoy even more fulfilling and more productive work in your team or organization.  Welcome to the new economy.

The key to a role-based organization is to be very specific about “rules of play” and desired outcomes, in every area of the business.  There are so many examples of role-based organizations: almost any sport, bands and orchestras, customer – merchant relationships.  Participants in any of these activities follow relatively clear “rules of play” and there is a balance of power which is shared.  This produces self-organization and results that are far more interesting than anything that can be directed from a central point of authority and control.

It is true, even in a role-based organization, a hierarchy of sorts emerges as “stars” out-perform their peers and of course we still have leadership roles in the orchestra – conductor and first violin, the pitcher and catcher in baseball.  But these roles cannot work without acceptance of peers.

Steve Pruneau leads executives and business owners to solve the gap between variable revenue and a fixed workforce. He is the first consultant at Free Agent Source. As a founder, Steve engages the broader community of corporate clients, entrepreneurs, startups and consultants. He manages company operations and lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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