Team development - management consulting | coaching
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Agile Transformation | Organisational Development

From hierarchical structures to role-based working

From Sabine Walter, Head of network management consulting | coaching

Many companies, including medium-sized ones, are questioning their tried and tested structures and organisational forms. The desire for more agility, employees' demand for greater creative freedom and more self-determination, a shortage of skilled workers and increasingly complex business challenges are pushing the multi-level hierarchy to its limits. Team-centred and role-based working is pushing to the fore. "How does this structural change succeed?", we are asked by many of our clients.

That is why we answer four questions in this article:

  • What is role-based working?
  • What opportunities lie in this form of organisation?
  • What framework conditions does such an organisation need?
  • How do you move from a hierarchy to role-based structures?

As a first step, let's create a common understanding of role-based working.

Definition: Role-based working

What is role-based working?

The key question with this form of organisation is: "What roles do we need in our team / company to complete all tasks in good quality and in a reasonable time to achieve our goals?"

A role maps out the responsibility of a meaningful bundle of tasks. A role is linked to all decision-making competencies that are needed to complete the task bundle. A role exists only as long as the associated tasks exist.

Role-based working: Differentiation from other forms of organisation

What is the difference between hierarchical structures and role-based forms of organisation?

There are different ways to organise a company. As explained in my article "Organic structures - a prerequisite for lasting competitiveness", the only decisive factor is to choose the structures in such a way that they enable productive work and create a space in which the members of an organisation work permanently with mind and heart to achieve the agreed goals.

Hierarchical form of organisation

The hierarchical form of organisation is characterised by a clear separation of decision-making levels. The result is usually long decision-making processes, non-transparent information and little agility.

Organisational form hierarchy - netzwerk managementberatung | coaching
Hierarchical form of organisation

Companies that think in hierarchies, fill management levels and positions. Both do not necessarily have to be linked to tasks and entail the risk of a lack of role clarity.

Furthermore, levels or hierarchies lead to power structures and consideration of status. When the organisational structure is changed, resistance often arises due to the fear of losing status and power.

Role-based organisational form

The basis of the role-based organisational form is made up of concrete tasks to be completed. Roles are therefore linked to tasks, not to people. This opens up three opportunities:

1. All roles exist side by side on an equal footing. This increases the chance that all role holders work at eye level.

Organisational form free network - netzwerk managementberatung | coaching
Role-based organisational form

2. Since all tasks contribute to entrepreneurial success, the risk of a power and status mentality becoming entrenched in the organisation is reduced.

3. Structures are easier to change.

What are common features of both forms of organisation?

Although it may not be obvious, there are several similarities between the two forms of organisation. We focus on the essential ones below.

Strength-based staffing of roles and positions

In the literature, strength-based working is often mentioned as an advantage of the role-based organisational form. I see this differently. The fact that roles are defined in an organisation does not automatically mean that the role holders are suitable for them based on their strengths and competencies. This step must also be actively taken in role-based work.

The opportunity to fill a position or role based on strengths is inherent in all forms of organisation, including hierarchical ones.

Effective leadership is the key

Both forms of organisation need leadership. In the absence of purposeful leadership, both lose power and effectiveness. Both forms of organisation need clarity. Clarity in terms of responsibilities, processes and interfaces.

In our work, we experience time and again that companies spend a lot of time, money and nerves on changing the organisational structure, although the lever for more competitiveness and a healthier corporate culture lies in the leadership.

Both forms of organisation benefit from a culture of trust

Companies in which a culture of trust is firmly anchored are usually more efficient than companies in which a culture of fear prevails. Therefore, both hierarchically organised companies benefit from it as well as organisations that work in a role-based manner. Whenever people act independently within the framework of their responsibilities, trust is the basis.

Both forms of organisation need transparent communication

Transparent communication and information flow are among the cornerstones of all healthy companies - no matter how they are organised. Hierarchically organised companies can also choose to provide information appropriate to the recipient and do not have to follow a top-down process.

Both forms of organisation gain through cooperation

Productivity, agility and quality increase in both organisational forms when there is a culture of collaboration. This company-wide ability to cooperate is more strongly promoted in role-based work. If this quality is missing in companies, it becomes apparent more quickly through role-based working.

Role-based working: Opportunities and areas of application

What opportunities lie in role-based work?

You may have got the impression from reading the last few paragraphs that there are not so many differences between the two forms of organisation. And the question that has arisen in your mind is: "Why do I need role-based working at all?" So let me now look at other opportunities associated with this form of organisation.

Role-based working tends to reflect the needs of the new generation of workers

In my article "New Work - what's behind the megatrend?" I will discuss, among other things, which central questions determine the understanding of work in our time. In addition to the creation of meaning, the main issue is the demarcation between man and machine or man and AI. With the developing intelligence of machines, our human perception of work is changing. Work should create meaning, it should offer creative freedom and enable self-realisation.

This desire, which is increasingly felt by young employees in particular, is more likely to be met in role-based organisations with flat hierarchies.

Role-based working promotes the self-efficacy of staff and teams

If a role-based structure is introduced with everything it needs for success, it actively strengthens the sense of responsibility and self-efficacy of staff and teams. Are the roles equipped with the corresponding decision-making powers and do companies with this form of organisation gain speed, quality and agility?

Role-based working facilitates change

By linking roles to tasks and not to people, the risk of status consideration is reduced. Less consideration about status means less fear of losing status in the context of change and reorganisation processes. This reduces the resistance that many experience when restructuring hierarchical companies.

What framework conditions does a role-based structure need?

I have already hinted at it in the section "Commonalities of both forms of organisation". Regardless of the organisational structure, central cultural conditions must be in place for an organisational form to be effective. This also applies to role-based working. These frameworks include:

  • Target clarity
  • Role clarity
  • Strength- and competence-based staffing of roles
  • Equipping the roles with all necessary decision-making competencies
  • Culture of trust
  • Information transparency
  • Cooperation
  • Targeted management

How do you move from a hierarchical structure to a role-based structure?

Companies that want to replace a hierarchical structure with a role-based structure usually find it more difficult than start-ups that think in terms of roles right from the start. Nevertheless, reorganisation can also succeed in hierarchically organised companies. What needs to be done specifically?

  1. Think with the end in mind and establish clarity of purpose
    The initial question is always: "What do we want to have achieved as a company and by when?"
  2. Define actual situation
    As with any approach, in addition to clarifying the goals, the current situation must also be defined. The question: "Where are we as a company now?" must be answered.
  3. Derive tasks
    "What tasks need to be done to achieve the defined goals?" is the leading question for this step of the process. It is crucial here that all tasks are to be identified, not only additional tasks, but also the tasks of day-to-day business. Because, if you stopped doing them, you would not achieve your goals.
  4. Group tasks into meaningful clusters
    The preliminary stage to the roles are meaningful task clusters. Group the tasks into clusters and name these clusters.
  5. Convert cluster names into meaningful role names
  6. Distribute roles based on strengths and competencies
    This is a crucial step. If you do not make sure that strengths and competencies match the role when distributing roles, you risk roles not being filled or not being filled fully. Several people can fill one role. One person can hold several roles.
  7. Equip roles
    Many companies do not take this step, do not take it properly or take it too late. But it is part of the process if role-based working is to work and lead to more self-efficacy, speed and agility. The two guiding questions are: "What does the role holder need to be able to fully perform their role?" and "What are the competencies to be associated with the role so that it can be fulfilled effectively?". These include, for example, qualifications, information, decision-making powers, budget, additional manpower, a certain infrastructure, work results of other roles at a fixed quality.
  8. Define feedback basis for each role holder
    A prerequisite for targeted leadership and further development of a role-based structure, as in other organisational forms, is feedback. In order to be able to give constructive feedback, a clear expectation is needed. You can create this by asking the following question: "How do you / I / others see that you are fully fulfilling your role?" In the answers, look for measurable results and specifically discernible behaviour.

Conclusion: From hierarchical structures to role-based working

A change of organisational form succeeds if the process is carried through to the end and embedded in central cultural framework conditions

The shift from a hierarchical to a role-based structure brings concrete entrepreneurial benefits when it is embedded in central cultural framework conditions such as clarity of purpose, a culture of trust and transparency of information. Role-based structures also need effective leadership and are productive when the roles match the strengths and competencies of the role holders.

The reorganisation process comprises eight steps and must be accompanied by transparent communication. All members of the organisation need to understand what is happening, why this change of organisational form is needed at this time, what they stand to gain and how the change will take place.

If you would like us to accompany such a reorganisation, please contact us.

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We send out our newsletter about once a month, providing tips and information on the topics of leadership and organisational development. You can cancel the subscription and unsubscribe at any time. We use the E-Mail address you provide here exclusively for sending the newsletter and do not pass it on to third parties.

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