On the train two days ago I sat next to someone reading a job description. These ritualistic documents continue to look important. Yet they fit with an image of the organisation as a machine, with each jobholder in the role of a reliable cog. The aim is to produce predictable output. Everything and everyone has its correct place. But is this what makes organisations tick any more? Systems thinking, complexity science, and shadow-side dynamics suggest otherwise.
If it is the individual who holds pride of place in an organisation’s success and its productivity, then a formal, detailed, fixed job description that defines what lies at the heart of a job might make some kind of sense. But organisations succeed because of what happens in the spaces between individuals – whether smooth-running or sparky. It is the quality of those relationships that matter.
We live in an organisational economy. Services are successfully supplied to customers by systems, not by individuals. Arguably, what goes on at the periphery of a job and between jobs is more important than what goes on at the heart of a job, but this receives little if any attention in job descriptions. Similarly, it is what goes on between partner organisations that is increasingly significant. Organisations are open systems not closed ones. A job is an open system too.
When Alistair Campbell appeared before the Iraq Inquiry yesterday, he gave a most creditable performance. He seemed to see his job as protecting Tony Blair, protecting his own skin, and laying into the media. Campbell’s successor sees his job very differently. What matters is interpretation, one’s personal gifts, what the boss calls for, and what is changing in the environment.
The machine metaphor fails because it can’t be redesigned quickly enough for fast-moving and unpredictable times. Complex organisations need to be capable of adapting quickly as demands and environments change. Job responsibility needs sharpening while becoming less pinned down – a modern paradox.
The most valuable things people do are often not what is contained within the defined job, but what lies beyond it – in special tasks and projects connected with improvement and change. Appearing before the Iraq Inquiry was surely not in Campbell’s job description, but what he did mattered, couldn’t be ducked, and he made a good fist of it.
The most important question a jobholder can ask is “Why am I continuing to do what I am continuing to do the way I am continuing to do it?” No doubt it is someone’s job to write job descriptions. Perhaps they should be asking themselves this very same question.