Roles Considered Harmful

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“Man’s role is uncertain, undefined, and perhaps unnecessary.” – Margaret Mead

So there I was talking to a team that was split across two locations. There was the usual set of complaints that you might expect from a scenario where a team is divided across geophysical locations: miscommunication, delay, misunderstandings, etc.

In this case, the QA folks happened to be in one location and the development folks in another. As we talked through some of these issues, I couldn’t help but point out that the root cause – that separation between the two groups, could easily be solved: just split into two teams by location. Of course, that would leave us with a team of developers without any QA. Working with dev only teams doesn’t bother me (been there, done that, got the merit badge), but it was a different question altogether for this team member I was talking to. For them, the entire idea of removing a role from the team was completely untenable.

The first objection was, “If we don’t have QA on the team, who will keep developers under control? ”

Whoa! What? Back up the truck!

Who will keep the developers under control? Seriously?

At this point, I shifted gears and started asking questions about the team roles. I was concerned with this QA role that ‘controls’ cowboy developers. Why do we need to ‘control’ anybody in the first place? How exactly do you exert this control? What would happen if you didn’t control them?

It was quite an eye opening conversation. The more I looked at it, the more I realized that the roles of QA and developer had an astonishing amount of baggage associated with them. The QA role is the only role that can test code. The developer role is the only one that can write code. One can’t possibly be trusted to do the other’s job. It would be a lapse of ethical integrity!

Oh my God! Do people hear themselves when they utter this tripe?

Apparently not. No wonder we avoid creating roles or minimize them in some processes (i.e. Scrum, or better yet, swarming). It’s awfully easy to come to the conclusion that roles carry as much dysfunction as they do benefit for a team. They invite definition and structure, but in doing so they also create walls and barriers to effectiveness and efficiency.

As soon as you create a role that is entirely responsible for quality (or anything else for that matter), you do three things:

  1. You define their job, and by doing so, you make a distinction between “the things that I do” and “the things that you do”. It starts to define what you can and can’t do. That’s useful if you are trying to subdivide work. But not so useful if you are trying to create dynamic, flexible teams that adapt themselves to unanticipated changes. You know…Agile?
  2. You create an in-group and an out-group. In psychological terms, you are creating an “us” vs. “them” distinction which almost inevitably leads to conflict.
  3. With these foundations, our thinking is constrained about how the process of value creation should work. The distinctions that we hold in our heads are what we use in order to create the boundaries of our processes. We find these boundaries between Dev and QA, sales and product, managers and teams, and yes, even Scrum Masters and coaches. They’re everywhere.

Obviously, roles can have profound impacts on how people think about their relationship with the people they work together with. So what can we do about it?

As I asked further questions, it became apparent to me where I might go. Talking to the team would be a complete waste of time. They didn’t define the roles. They were hired for the roles that their managers defined. So step one is talking to the managers.

Of course managers are people too. They are only trying to fit in the hierarchy and culture of the company. Eliminating roles would be a very threatening thing to a manager whose whole career has been based on making and supporting such roles. So we can’t expect a whole lot of help from there either.
Of course you could just show them…

There are some talented developers I know, coaches really, who are very good at working side by side with teams and demonstrating by example how to blur the distinctions between roles. You can even do it yourself with other managers. Build those relationships. Help them out. Show them how it feels to have someone else help out that doesn’t have the same role as they do.

In the end, I think it comes down to people being able to experience what not having hard defined roles is like. You can’t talk them into it. You just need to roll up your sleeves and demonstrate with them.

“I’m not playing a role. I’m being myself, whatever the hell that is.” – Bea Arthur

References
Scrum Masters Considered Harmful, Paul Hodgetts
Us and Them: The Science of Identity, David Berreby

One Response to Roles Considered Harmful

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