Activating your team around clear responsibilities

An introduction to Responsibility Mapping

Have you ever looked back at your job description only to laugh at how little it reflects what you actually do? Have you ever stopped to think about the fact the people you work with often have never even seen your job description? So while the job description might become quickly irrelevant once you start a new job, your peers don't even have that to ground their understanding of what your role and responsibilities are supposed to be.

Think about how that pans out across your entire organization — people are often unclear about what it is their peers do, and how they might be able to give or receive help from them in achieving your organization's mission. Remote environments, as we've all learned, no longer offer the lunchroom or hallway catchups where you better get to know the people you work with. It's so easy for an important initiative or task to fall through the cracks because no one knows if it isn't being taken care of, who is suppose to do it, or worse, they want to help but fear they will step on someone's toes and get reprimanded (imagine — getting reprimanded for wanting to help; unfortunately it happens).

I've been writing a lot about the power that purpose and alignment bring in sustaining successful product teams. To truly realize this potential, you need to activate your team around them. With shifting priorities, growth, attrition — this can feel like a lot to manage. It is!

Unsurprisingly, discussions about roles and responsibilities often occur behind closed doors, in one-on-one settings. The cadence in which they happen varies but can often be at arbitrary intervals (e.g. performance review time) rather than the moments it matters most. There actually is a good reason for that: open conversations can feel threatening if not done in an honest, fair, and transparent fashion. Fear that these types of conversations are just fronts for skill and talent assessments that will impact performance appraisals, chances of advancement, and more, are very real concerns to the people in your organization. What's needed is a method that helps to guide real team conversations that allow individuals to openly communicate strengths, weaknesses, interests, and disinterests that might help us work better together and even enjoy our work.

While traditional methods like a skills assessment matrix might help summarize swaths of information at a large organizational level, it does nothing for the team itself to really be open with each other about how they work together. Furthermore, these approaches can risk dehumanizing the people that we work with. We're complex beings, and we often jump right to over-simplification rather than taking some time to understand motivations. No wonder people feel threatened when we start talking about this.

A workshop that we facilitate at Purple Sector Strategy is called Responsibility Mapping. It's an important piece of our Alignment Program that helps activate teams around a shared vision. While you wind up with an artefact at the end (the map), the discussion that takes place in this workshop is the critical piece that builds understanding and camaraderie. It's a team exercise that encourages open collaboration and transparency to enable the outcome of becoming a high performing team.

Here's a peek under the hood of how this can help teams in your organization.

Responsibility Mapping

Responsibility Mapping is a workshop that requires team members and its leader to be involved. The discussion requires open and fair discourse that dives into what the team does as a whole, and then what each individual is responsible for. Through the process, you'll find outliers — responsibilities that don't have an owner, ones that have multiple owners, and even those that perhaps shouldn't be there in the first place. You'll also give people an opportunity to discuss what they do (current responsibilities), what they want to do (growth opportunities) and what they feel they shouldn't be doing (out of scope activities).

The map winds up looking something like this at the end of the session (this example is abstracted and condensed for demonstration purposes).

A screenshot of a responsibility map
A simplified responsibility map. While the output might look something like this, the conversation that drives towards this state is where the magic happens.

Team Charter and Accountabilities

A team charter and list of accountabilities can act as a north star to help ensure there is alignment with the team's purpose. While a formalized charter and list of accountabilities can certainly help in these sessions, is not entirely necessary.

An outcome from this discussion can point to the need for clarity or updates around the team's purpose.

Capturing All Activities

The exercise begins by capturing as many of the activities that happen in regular course of work – it's a free for all where everyone gets to add all the various activities that fill their day-to-day — the good, the bad, the ugly. Don't worry about granularity, naming, or whether you feel it should be there or not — just open up the opportunity to capture it all.

Current Responsibilities

With the all the activities captured, now comes the work that allows people to start to assign it to themselves. Watch for the items that aren't getting assigned — or the ones where there might be confusion as to who should be doing what. This can lead to some potentially uncomfortable conversations — but behind that discomfort is the underlying misunderstanding of the the jobs people feel they're suppose to do. We need to uncover that to find a resolution and move forward.

"I thought you were responsible for that", "I didn't want to step on your toes", "Oh, I'm suppose to be doing that?!", "I really don't like doing that", or even "I'd love to do more of that!" are some of the comments you might hear.

Growth Opportunities

While it's natural to focus on the work that individuals are expected to do, these discussions open up great opportunities to speak to the work people want to grow into. This helps others on the team identify mentorship opportunities now that they know others have a vested interest in learning about particular subjects. It also helps you identify some areas for training, or courses that can help.

I've seen team members step up quickly to offer guidance to others wanting to learn more about particular subjects. This transparency leads to better growth and advancement opportunities that are proven to be great for retention.

Out of Scope Activities

This opens up discussion about the work that happens but shouldn't be. Maybe there are good reasons for it, maybe there are not — maybe that’s not clear. But this makes it transparent that the work is happening. Plans can be made to move it off someone's plate, or formalize the need for it. We don't want to ignore that work, but it's so easy to do that when we don't confront it purposefully.

This can be a great catalyst to identify resourcing needs, or for engaging with other teams about how responsibilities might need to shift.

As I mentioned earlier, the value isn't in the artefact itself at the end, but rather the process in mapping it out — that's where the collaboration and shared understanding is created. People get to have open and honest discussions to improve their understandings of how they fit into the team and how they collaborate. While there may be moments of discomfort, the clarity that people walk away with is a huge win. Leaders in the room must help keep discussion honest, but fair. With more practice, it becomes easier to do. A third party facilitator can also help you focus on participating in the conversation rather than worrying about running it.

The map itself can serve as a guide for future conversations. As team members join or leave, you can start to redistribute responsibilities or identify the gaps on your team which can help support your hiring plans. Using the map helps guide discussions in those moments of change. We recommend intentionally scheduling a quarterly review just to keep yourselves honest but don't let that schedule stop you from using it when needed. You'll likely uncover areas that require deep dives in smaller groups or one-on-one's so it can be very useful in prompting the need for those discussions.

These conversations can be difficult even in tight-knit teams because we might be lacking the structure in which to have the discussions. Responsibility Mapping is just one of many useful tools that you can use in improving alignment in your product teams, and is only as good as your commitment to open, fair, and safe conversations.


Carlos Perez is an Alignment Strategist and Coach at Purple Sector Strategy. He helps teams create the conditions to get aligned around a shared vision through guided workshops and coaching. Book a free consultation to learn more.