Distinguishing between individuals and the roles that they hold is fundamental to organization design. But the two are easily confused. I do it myself sometimes.
A few years ago, I was working as a project manager in a large firm and was responsible for acquiring a new IT system. We had evaluated several alternative vendors, made the choice about which vendor to go with, and reached agreement regarding the contract terms. Finally we were ready to implement the system. We had even started communicating to employees the new, fantastic features that they would be provided with.
One key idea was that the system would be integrated with the company’s internal database of names that is used by the Microsoft Outlook program. This would make the system more user-friendly as it would automatically recognize the user. Unexpectedly, however, a man from corporate staff appears outside my office and says that no such integration will be allowed, as it would go against company policy. At the conclusion of the meeting, I remember feeling rather frustrated with this person who was threatening to spoil our project.
However, a few minutes after he had left, I sat down and stared at the business card he had given me. I read the title – Head of IT security. I realized that the person was simply doing his job – which among other things, was to restrict the kind of internet based application that would be allowed to interface directly with the company’s internal applications (of course, I also realized that we should have contacted him ourselves at an earlier stage in the process). So any frustration I felt should have been directed at the policy or the role rather than the person.
As the late Elliot Jaques observed, we often come to believe that conflicts are caused by personal differences when in fact, it’s the roles that are incompatible. Jaques recommended that you stop focusing on changing people and start focusing on re-designing roles – by addressing role conflicts and ensuring that people pursue complementary goals. It is often left to people far down in the organization to handle such issues, but shouldn’t it be the job of leaders to ensure that one designs an organization where the conflict potential is minimized?
This is the first of three posts. Next week, I will look more specifically about how we manage the role vs. individual issue during organization re-design processes.