peterme.com: No Job Titles

Peter Merholz pulls back the curtain on some internal Adaptive Path discussions about how to organize themselves. They’re probably right at the critical point, about 20 people, and getting ready to, for lack of a better word, institutionalize the way they do what they do. But, how to organize it and what to call the people who do the work? Great question. They are really smart, very thoughtful and will no doubt come up with something really effective.

I’ve been through this more than a couple times. I’ve been in three distinct situations where we went from a small, sort of organic team to onewith process, roles, titles, etc. It was never easy, and I’m not sure we got it exactly right in any of the situations.

But, as someone outside of Adaptive Path and someone who could foreseeably be a client of leading design/strategy/development firms like them, I’d advocate that they really take an outside-in view of this challenge. And, in the end, try to organize themselves in a way that makes sense to their clients and partners first, then to their internal employees. I think there’s tempation to use the org structure as a way to motivate, satisfy or placate employees. Job title, or lack thereof, is a great way to suggest empowerment, autonomy, control, clarity. All those things good teammates want when things go a bit hazy as growth happens.

While I am no organizational design expert, I do have a couple hard earned insights gained from having my ass handed to me by either my employees, clients or accountant. I can’t help myself from spouting some advice.

1) Clients don’t care what the job title is, as long as they know who does what
As long as the client  knows who makes the decisions (on project scope, strategy, implementation, design, business matters, etc.) they probably won’t care who has got what title. Once the project gets underway and everyone is clear about who they can go to get questions answered, job titles are irrelevant at best, confusing at worst.

2) Roles are More Important than Org Hierarchy, Generally
Each project is different. Each client engagement is different. Each business situation is different. But, every engagement needs a couple things: Clearly identified decision makers, clear visibility into who has accountability for deliverables, who the client can go to when things aren’t going right. These are typically project roles vs. organizational positions. The firm can drop just about anyone into these roles, regardless of what their titles are and the project should still move forward. From the perspective of a client, as long as you have these roles laid out, you can organize yourself internally however you want with or without titles.

3) Don’t Make me Think About It
This is familiar. If your org structure intracacies or job titles (chief evangelist, Director of People Development, Chief WoW officer) raise more questions or concerns for clients than they answer, if they  cause the client to have to think too much about what the structure means or who is responsible, then you might have bungled it. Your clients want to get shit done, preferably ahead of schedule, under budget and without too much of their own effort. They probably don’t care who reports to who, unless theres a problem.

3) If Your Process is Encoded in Your Job Titles, Take Time to Explain Why
Sometimes the process a firm follows dictates specific roles and job titles. Make sure your client knows what the process really means to them, in terms of how they might have to work differently, think differently about the problem, solution, and deliverables, etc. Then, job titles can be a very helpful way to communicate how the client has to come along in the process and how they slot in to the work your team will do.

Lastly, please don’t be goofy, or arch, or clever, or overly expressive in what you call your team. Just keep it simple. Associates works pretty much 95% of the time.