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Not what you think it is: Roles and Responsibilities Workshop

Use it to surface people issues in the team!

Do you know the Roles and Responsibilities Workshop? It’s a workshop gathering all participants of an extended team (team + stakeholders) during which responsibilities are made explicit for each role, possibly also making explicit the role(s) of each participant. The workshop ends with a set of paper sheets summing up the responsibilities for each role.

Such a Roles and Responsibilities Workshop that I have facilitated.

As someone who took part in several instances of this workshop, and also who facilitated a few of them, I would like to shed some light on the real goals of the workshop.

From my experience, the workshop is almost never making roles and responsibilities much clearer than they already were before the beginning of the workshop.

A mostly useless workshop

Why am I saying that? Let me quote a former colleague when asked to take part into such a workshop:

Well, it’s useless. We’ll spend one hour together, write papers or at best write them into Confluence, and then we’ll never look at them ever again. But sure I’ll come, if you want me to be there.

(Please note the awesome mix of honesty and goodwill of this person)

I must admit that I mostly agree.

Sadly, the only time the result of the workshop is checked out at a later date is when the team is dysfunctional.

In this case, what was said during the workshop is checked out a few months later, only to find out that while brilliant things were said (and agreed to), yet the team did not start working this way.

I find that this specific situation matches pretty well with the word useless to define the workshop.

Why not focus on the relevant part?

At best, the workshop is useful when a single, new role is added in the team, or when somebody new joins the team, possibly with new views on an existing role.

However in these two cases, the value of the workshop is mostly centered on one new people joining the team.

My point is: why doing a big workshop to talk about all the roles and responsibilities in the team when what we actually want is to talk about the new people joining the team?

Can’t we just focus on the new people joining the team and get it done quickly?

However, in order to run some kind of expedite version of the workshop that focuses on some people you need a welcoming environment… An environment where it’s OK to talk openly about issues. A psychologically safe environment.

Which brings us to the real value of the workshop…

Unless the problem is elsewhere…

I have also witnessed cases where the workshop was truly helpful.

Not because of the definition of the roles and responsibilities. Like in every other roles and responsibilities workshop I have attended or facilitated, they were barely checked out later.

But because the workshop created an environment that enabled participants to say out loud things that they had not voiced otherwise.

Talking about roles and responsibilities is indeed a powerful canvas to bring issues to the table without focusing on the people. In the end, we’ll talk about people, but we won’t be blaming each other — we’ll be trying to work out the roles and responsibilities. The workshop enables to discuss about such important interpersonal issues.

To me, the workshop is a success if it helps creating psychological safety.

I would even go as far as to say that the workshop is a failure if nobody gets angry at someone else during the workshop. This workshop is meant to be a shock therapy for the team.

Psychological safety is easy to dismiss

Another take would be to phrase the use of the workshop in this harsh way:

So people aren’t mature enough to directly talk about the issue of how a single person is behaving in the team…

So let’s do a BIG workshop where everyone is getting to talk about his own role and responsibilities on the team instead of focusing on the single people.

While most of the workshop will not be that useful , wasting most people’s time— it’s already known stuff, or easy to solve issues outside of a workshop — in the end we use the workshop as a cover so that we can still talk about the hard stuff.

The wording used is very strong: “not mature enough”, “not useful”, “wasting people’s time”, “use the workshop as a cover”…

Such wording implies that the workshop would be used to counter some kind of childish behavior.

I don’t know if it’s childish or not, what I know is that it is a common situation and that such issues will prevent the team from truly forming and performing.

In the end it’s not helpful to call this behavior “childish” as a way to dismiss it. Don’t dismiss it. Using such words is actually reinforcing the behavior, killing psychological safety.

Whatever the means to improve psychological safety, use them. And never suppose that people are able to talk about important things — never suppose they can because “they are grown-ups”.

Seriously, creating a psychologically safe place is not easy.

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