Bill Tate is a leadership specialist who focuses on the use of systems approaches to understand and improve leadership development.

On his new Systemic Leadership blog, he has written about the challenge of writing and fulfilling job descriptions in a complex environments. His ideas have some resonance with a  popular November 2009 post on the Peter Principle and how incompetence spreads around hierarchical organisations.

It is thought-provoking stuff, especially in the context of international aid where:

  • working in partnerships and networks is increasingly important
  • where contexts are complex and therefore jobs have an inherent ambiguity and uncertainty 
  • where each project or programme demands different, sometimes opposing skills and capabilities, and
  • where worryingly few people actually have useful job descriptions, that fully and accurately describe their day-to-day work and responsibilities

Over to Bill: 

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 reliable and 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 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.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. The new technology transforms the way we are going about creating and distributing value.
    Collaboration and coordination tools enable creative and productive networks to span the entire globe. Their power lies on their ability to bring together resources scattered across the entire planet. These distributed networks are also very well suited to operate on very scarce resources. The classical examples are the GNU/Linux and the Wikipedia projects, which cannot be realized on a limited population base, or within a limited geographical area, because of the low density of skilled volunteers. The Internet and specialized software makes it possible for these productive systems to achieve critical mass, by pulling together very scarce resources from across the world. And let’s not forget that creative and knowledgeable individuals are a scarce resource. Classical hierarchical entities can also capitalize on the new technology, but their closed architecture and their individualistic and overly competitive mentality makes them less inclusive and less social, therefore, their capacity to extract potential from the new technology is diminished. Open distributed networks, if they are organized based on sound principles, and are well managed, they possess an inherent advantage in today’s global and networked economy.

  2. Thank you for sharing. This was a very valuable article.

    It actually parallels a challenge I have been facing as I look forward and see that there are very few job descriptions that fit with the type of passions and skills in organizational change and knowledge management that I have.


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Institutions, Leadership, Organisations