Spontaneous role clarification
3 Techniques for role clarification without a workshop
In an ideal world, we conduct a role clarification workshop with the team in the kick-off phase of every project. Clarifying responsibilities and expectations is one of the best practices of project management, and forms the basis for good cooperation.
But what if you join later? Maybe you have just taken over, or the project is in crisis and you have been brought in to get it back on track for success. Even if you cannot convince your colleagues that a workshop is necessary, the following techniques will help. Either you make it transparent that there really is a problem in the understanding of roles, or you come up with a solution spontaneously. You can only win.
Each of the following techniques can also be used in a role clarification workshop.
1. role clarification technique: process run-through
My personal favourite for role clarification is the process run-through. Just a few weeks ago I did it in a large stakeholder workshop, although it was not on the agenda. The group of more than 20 engineers had already been working together for 15 months on a large infrastructure project. All processes were well documented, and yet questions arose about decision-making instances and communication between different areas that “should” be clear.
So I started a process run-through. This can be done with moderation cards or post-its on which you write the individual delivery outcomes. Alternatively, you can draw the steps on the whiteboard or flipchart (simple boxes and arrows will do) and use online platforms like Miro and Mural.
Delivery outputs can be planning documents and appraisals, design documents for software developments, process descriptions, test results and other delivery items, it all depends on your project. Start with the first process step and give the card to the person where the process starts. You can do this in any meeting with or without paper, because the crucial part comes now.
At each station ask:
“What do you do with this?”
You ask exactly the same questions you would ask if you were making a flowchart. Don’t be irritated if some participants roll their eyes and try to ridicule your action. Trust that there will be some who realise after two stations at the latest that the exercise is very valuable.
“Who does it go to now?”
Quite often, the participants do not realise how many stations their intermediate result passes on the way to completion. Correction runs, appraisals, queries and approval processes are overlooked and thus missing from the overall picture. This leads to delays in communication, misunderstandings and conflicts (“Why doesn’t he ever deliver?!”).
“How does he/she find out about it?”
This is by far my favourite question, because surprisingly often there is no additional communication outside of saving on certain drives.
“Where do we go from here?”
Keep it small-scale. Go step by step and station by station. You had a good reason to raise the issue of role clarification – now it’s about finding the points where fuzziness exists.
“Who makes the decision?”
You will encounter this question again below because it is one of the most important in your arsenal. And falls into the category of “it’s obvious anyway”. If only it were. Again and again I encounter an awkward silence. Often it is only now that those involved realise that they themselves do not know exactly who is making the decision and how.
So if you hear at one of your process stations that a decision is being made here, ask carefully. Decisions also hide under the names release, prioritisation, order, deadline, confirmation, evaluation, classification. Who exactly makes these decisions? Who is involved and who is not consulted? Often at this point you may find that important stakeholders are not part of the decision-making process. Now is the time to point this out and suggest changes.
Record any identified weaknesses, mark them on your chart and write a list of next steps. Include them in your list of project tasks and manage them as actively as any other tasks.
2. role clarification technique: situational enquiry
Do you know Harry Potter? In the fifth book, Harry meets a new classmate, the dreamy and irritatingly open communicator Luna Lovegood. Luna seems to have no sense whatsoever of when it is appropriate to speak one’s mind. The fact that people might be embarrassed if you tell them the unvarnished truth or comment openly on their behaviour either doesn’t occur to her or she takes no notice of it.
If you disregard Lovegood’s sometimes oblique theories, you can take advantage of Luna’s clear openness. Too often we don’t say what we think. We don’t ask the question that runs through our minds when we listen to our colleague’s account. Why? Because we don’t dare. Or because we want to be considerate. Especially in our culture, where knowledge, expertise and certifications are so highly valued, we fear the reaction “What kind of question is that? He/she has no idea!” What do our colleagues think of us then? How can we maintain our reputation as experienced experts if we ask supposedly stupid questions?
With this inner attitude we stand in our own way and in the way of success in the team. Be brave and ask the obvious question. It is a sign of insecurity and immaturity if you don’t ask the question just to avoid looking stupid.
Speak out what you observe. You are sitting at the table with noisy leaders and no one is making the decision? Speak up. Someone has asked who is responsible for the test scripts and everyone looks at each other? Speak up.
You can tone down the frank comments à la Luna by phrasing it, for example, “Hm, it looks to me like it’s not clear who makes that decision.” or “So there’s no one who makes that decision? Good thing I asked.” Also comments like “I’m glad we’re doing this exercise” show that you are in the boat and not playing the accuser.
Try to keep your tone friendly and humorous. This will ease the tension and avoid your comment coming across as a reproach to the whole group. The point is not to find someone to blame or to embarrass your colleagues. It is about putting the cooperation in the team on a good basis by clarifying roles.
In projects that have been running for a while, there is usually already experience that can be used in situational enquiries. For example, discuss what is going well and is just not known to everyone: “It seems like no one is making this decision. But there are already some (results) – how did they come about?”
And remember that some of the other participants probably have the same question and are just too shy to ask it.
3. role clarification technique: round of introductions
The most obvious opportunity for spontaneous role clarification is the round of introductions. When participants introduce themselves and their roles, ask for clarification in a friendly way. Use questions to confirm your understanding.
“So you are the one who creates all the design documents?”
“Ah, that means you are our liaison to corporate communications. That’s good to know!”
While you’re at it, make connections between the participant:s, for example through elements from the process flow. “So you give the draft to (colleague Y), and the expert opinion is then drawn up at his place?” In this way, a picture of cooperation in the team gradually emerges. This has the side effect with new team members that they immediately have those in mind with whom they will have more to do.
An open question about the distribution of roles is also an option, especially if you are in a group of several similarly positioned interlocutors, such as the three IT service providers who support your company in the implementation. “What is the distribution of roles here?” is a perfectly plausible question in a first joint kick-off meeting.
In the introductory round you have less time and space for questions than in the process run-through. Nevertheless, it offers a good indication of who already has a clear idea of their own role and how clear the flow of results through the team already is. Depending on the phase in the project and your impression from the introductory round, you can then immediately schedule an in-depth meeting.
All role clarification techniques serve the purpose of uncovering ambiguities and misunderstandings and making them transparent. You do not have to solve all the problems and weaknesses in the process immediately. But you are already a big step ahead if you have succeeded in showing other team members and stakeholders that there are ambiguities.
Many project participants think that after x weeks or with y project documents everything is already clarified and consider the investment in a dedicated workshop a waste of time and resources. Use one of the techniques mentioned here to start clarification directly without further argumentation. In the best case, this is enough and the ambiguities are resolved. If not, even a short process run through with a long list of open questions will show that the investment in the issue is worthwhile.
In doing so, be aware that you are putting your finger on the wound. Remain courageous and do not let yourself be sidetracked. You are making a valuable contribution to the cooperation in the project.
If you are interested in other useful practices that will help you get closer to your goals without firefights, high blood pressure and the risk of burnout, please feel free to contact Angelika Collisi.
The psychologist Bernd Schmid has defined the Three Worlds Model of Personality with three personality roles – private world, professional world and organisational world. This categorisation should help to avoid conflicts.
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Angelika Collisi has published another article on the t2informatik Blog:
Angelika Collisi coaches managers, project leaders and their teams. She accompanies them on their way to successful projects, good cooperation and happy customers – without permanent stress and burnout. She is a psychologist (M.A.) and has completed training in holistic healing. She is a certified trainer, project manager and business analyst and holds a lectureship in social psychology at the Hamburger Fern-Hochschule.
For more than 15 years, she has supported her clients in ambitious projects ranging from SAP implementations to global pricing software rollouts, from fast-growing tech start-ups to nationwide telemedicine projects. Before starting her own business in 2008, she held various roles in project and change management at TechData Corporation. Since 2016, she has been the managing partner of Pampiloxa GmbH.