How to break up key roles into their critical components

Allison Mandel

To business leaders, some roles may appear positively indispensable. If you’ve always had a Manager of Widget X, it is difficult to imagine how you will get by without them. They push projects forward, ensure operational efficiency, and interact with your most important customers.

Yet, with talent moving between opportunities at a faster rate than ever before, it’s very likely that your Widget Manager will someday leave. If you suddenly find yourself without anyone to fill that critical role, what will you do?

In Catalant’s recent eBook, we explored four steps to take when waiting to fill critical open positions. Now, we will explore how to break up those positions, potentially circumventing the need to backfill the role at all.

Pivot away from hiring

Positions are not indispensable in and of themselves; rather, they cover mission-critical workstreams. While these tasks may have previously been performed by one individual, that in no way precludes the opportunity to improve on the existing operating model. We consistently edit roles as new hires start; what’s to prevent us from further dissecting a role’s responsibilities?

A new vacancy is a valuable opportunity for your team. It provides you with room to reshape how your organization looks and functions: changing the distribution of work, providing other employees with ‘stretch’ opportunities that were previously done by the departed colleague, and reassessing what resources your team needs to function at top capacity.

By separating tasks from the previous role, you have the flexibility to create a novel approach to addressing open initiatives. You can adopt an ‘agile’ mindset and spread the role across a number of individuals. You can engage independent talent to tackle discrete projects, hiring only those that are specialized for that kind of work. Or, you could create a combination that provides the best of both worlds.

Parse the responsibilities

Sit down and list all of the job responsibilities that the role in question would ordinarily encompass. List and delineate those tasks that can be performed independently from those that are team-oriented this distinction will impact the working structure for those that cover them.

From there, determine which responsibilities are inherently ongoing and which can be reformulated into discrete projects. This exercise is where you should concentrate the bulk of your energy, as the default assumption is that most responsibilities cannot be turned into discrete projects.

Finally, consider which responsibilities require institutional knowledge of your company and its inner workings. Remember that there are plenty of external experts who have deep functional or industry-specific knowledge, so truly focus on determining what responsibilities require deep knowledge of your specific company. Take this opportunity to think about how these work streams may benefit explicitly from the addition of outside expertise and a fresh perspective, making external talent a better fit.

Before you begin to distribute the responsibilities, ensure you’ve addressed all of the following:

  • What are the core responsibilities or outcomes for this role?
  • What are the key deliverables associated with each responsibility?
  • What questions need to be answered to support this deliverable?
  • What activities will help to answer these questions?

Allocate across multiple talent groups

Just as hiring an individual may not be a one-size-fits-all approach to fulfilling key responsibilities, no one talent group is going to singularly address the multitude of workstreams you’ve listed. Below, we’ve outlined a rough matrix using the criteria we discussed, aiming to help you determine which talent groups may be a prime option:

Project Based On-Going
Institutional Knowledge Agile Teams Internal Full-Time Talent
No Institutional Knowledge Short-Term Engagements with Experts Long-Term Engagements with Experts

Freelance experts or other independent professionals work on both a short-term and long-term basis, covering work ranging from 2-week projects through ongoing support. Because of the specialization of these professionals, you can truly hone in on the precise skills needed, often increasing efficiency over what could be provided by someone in a multifaceted full-time role.

Short-term projects or discrete initiatives that truly require institutional knowledge can be best completed by agile teams. In fact, agile, cross-functional teams are often better equipped to provide this type of support than an individual since they bring in a diversity of perspectives and multiply their abilities through collaboration.

This leaves us to tackle ongoing engagements that require institutional knowledge. When thinking about breaking up roles, many managers get stuck on this segment, although in most circumstances it is not the majority of work completed. Ongoing and repetitive work can easily be internally reallocated, becoming a small component of existing job descriptions. Rarely, particularly within large organizations, can work be completed by only one person.

Reimagine how work gets done

Think of your core workforce as partially dedicated to ongoing tasks requiring institutional knowledge, tackling work that requires dedicated individuals who can consistently commit a percentage of their time to the task.

Then, once you’ve allocated foundational tasks, consider how you can free up the remainder of your employee’s time to adopt a more agile mindset. For your company, this may look like Google’s early policy of dedicating 20% of each person’s time to side projects. If you’re ready for a more all-encompassing and rewarding shift, consider creating a truly agile workforce that forms and disbands cross-functional teams for each initiative.

Building off of the baseline you’ve chosen, supplement your core workforce with specialized experts who can be engaged on an as-needed basis, tailoring the precise skill sets you acquire to the job at hand. With the ability to access 50,000+ experts via best-in-class talent platforms, the only limiting factor is your imagination.

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