The advantages to defining job roles instead of job positions

Position-based vs. role-based organisations

We’re all familiar with job positions, the building blocks of a position-based organisation. A job position comes with a title (e.g. Senior Data Analyst) and is filled by a single person. Each position has a job description: a list of responsibilities, skills, and qualifications needed for the position. By contrast, role-based organisations are composed of job roles. Roles represent a finer-grained unit of work and responsibility than positions.

In a position-based organisation, each individual has only one job position (Senior Data Analyst), whereas in a role-based organisation, individuals are represented by their role portfolio (Data Analyst, Copy Translator, Talent Recruiter). Each role can also be held by multiple people.

Building your organisation with positions vs. building it with roles

The most common organisational structure built from positions is a hierarchical pyramid. In this type of organisation, each person can be found in exactly one position on the organisational chart, or organigramm (a diagram showing relationships between the building blocks).

In a position-based organisation, an individual is situated in one position in the pyramid. In a role-based organisation, that same individual may instead hold roles on different teams across the entire organisation.

Problems with positions

1. Positions are static

We’ve all experienced being hired to a job with a job description that, over time, diverges from what one actually does. It’s natural that your work evolves over time, but job descriptions rarely evolve with it.

Job descriptions are also often inaccurate from the beginning. They tend to be written by excited HR teams or managers who envision an ideal candidate for the position. However, there’s rarely a perfect match between this idealised description and the eventual candidate. This rift is not always corrected for upon hiring, making one’s job description immediately outdated.

2. Positions are single points of failure

If a manager leaves the organisation, the first reflex is to replace the vacant position, even if it might be difficult to find someone to fill this gap. Since positions represent a single point in the pyramid, disruptions can have cascading effects on those connected above and below the position. At the same time, re-filling the position might not solve the problem, since their job description might not reflect what this person was actually doing on a daily basis (see point 1).

Removing an individual from a pyramidal position-based organisation can have farther reaching consequences.

3. Position descriptions are generally not shared in a useful way

Job descriptions are often kept between the candidate and the recruiter. They are rarely published for other team members to consult while making decisions. If they happen to describe overlapping responsibilities with other positions, it may lead to wasteful repetition of work, as it is unclear who should be doing what. A lack of transparency can also lead to unnecessary frustration in your team if someone “steps over their boundaries” to make a decision — maybe without even knowing they were doing so.

Roles to the rescue

Using roles to describe your organisation can avoid many of the problems listed above and comes with additional benefits.

1. Roles are dynamic and adaptable

Removing or adding a position can be complex, lengthy, and costly. Since roles are more fine-grained or “closer” to the actual work, they can be added and removed to match the evolving needs of your organisation. Because taking on a role is less of a time commitment than taking on a position, it is often possible to fill a new role without hiring a new employee.

2. Roles don’t depend on individual people

As explained above, in a position-based organisation, work often depends on a single person. If that person isn’t around, decisions might have to be postponed and projects can stagnate. Positions are therefore co-dependent.

One of the strongest free-standing structures is a geodesic dome. Each joint is multiply connected. If you remove any random supporting bar it will have little effect on the strength of the structure as a whole. Role-based organisations take advantage of this: individuals can hold multiple roles, and roles can be held by multiple people.

3. Roles provide a holistic view of what the organisation needs to succeed

Roles more accurately describe the actual work that’s being done, helping pinpoint who is responsible for what. It increases transparency among team members and makes it easier for people to collaborate independently. Beyond this, making role descriptions explicit also forces conversations about whether a certain role is necessary or not (“Do we really need someone to …?”). In other words, maintaining an up-to-date role portfolio informs the organisation about what is truly necessary to thrive.

Additional benefit: Personal growth

Employees can take on or leave roles throughout their tenure at an organisation. Their role portfolio can evolve over time, based on how they want to grow. This is quite different from moving up (or down) on a pyramid of positions, where the only possible career path is to advance to another pre-destined position (e.g. a promotion from Salesperson to Regional Sales Manager).

Use a map to simplify the complexity

Describing your organisation as a collection of role portfolios makes your organisational chart more complex. If ten people hold ten unique roles, this makes for 100 role descriptions as opposed to ten job descriptions (positions). Then, if one is able to evolve their role portfolio over time, the complexity skyrockets. For instance, if you leave three roles and take on two roles, how will your colleagues know this? If role ownership changes, how will you know who to consult to make a decision for a task (remember, there is no more boss “above you”)?

As a shared reference, Peerdom helps you simplify the complexity of maintaining a role-based organisation. When you select a peer (right-hand column), his or her current role portfolio is highlighted (left-hand side).



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The org chart for the future of work