Would you rather lead a role-oriented or a mission-oriented team?


Division of labor is perhaps the greatest invention of mankind. Not everyone has to be a part-time farmer in order to eat, and that’s awesome. However, increasing specialization is not only a good thing, and we have in many ways reached and even surpassed the limits where it is good for us.

The functional organization and how it defines us

Over time, division of labor has fundamentally defined how we look at jobs, organizations, and individuals. The functional organization is in many ways the epitome of division of labor: a clear structure of highly specific roles grouped according to the type of work each performs. It has done a lot of good in providing clarity, a common language, and a clear identity for the people in it. It has also enabled simple recruiting – “we need one developer” – or has it, really?

Unfortunately, the clarity provided by the functional organization hides the real complexity of life. Simplifications are often useful, and the functional organization has served us well, but its shortcomings are becoming more and more obvious, and the fact that it is the paradigm on which our thinking is based even when we endeavor to implement other organization models has far-reaching consequences.

Human being are more than their job titles. Even now, job titles do not really show what capabilities and interests we have, but still in recruiting we have the instinctive preference to look for people who have done the “same” job at another company. Yet, even while the functional organization attempts to convince us that a job is a job, in reality we are already doing many different things under the umbrella of a single title, and what those things are is different in each company.

Furthermore, functional organization may even hinder people from using all of their competences to serve the mission of the company, as some tasks belong to a different department and are not to be touched.

Finally, the narrow definitions of roles in a functional organization fail to account for the dynamic nature of today’s work – largely brought about by the advances in automation and computing. Many traditional jobs are dying. Many new jobs are springing to life. The work you do can change drastically over the course of a few years, if the organization is flexible enough to accommodate that.

The functional organization is being challenged

Interestingly enough, the functional organization is being challenged from two very different directions: Lean and Agile.

Born in traditional manufacturing industry, Lean thinking promotes the continuous improvement of the product, process, and people, and places emphasis on the value stream – the flow within the company from order to delivery. It encourages companies to organize themselves not around functions, but around the products they deliver to customers, creating self-sufficient entities that are able to ensure that the customer gets what he needs as effectively as possible. It also encourages the creation of multi-skilled employees so that the flow is not interrupted even if someone is on sick leave. While people have their specialties, the team as a whole has a diverse and distributed set of skills that enables it to face any challenge.

In software development, agile teams work in much the same way. Embedding all the needed roles within the team, the team is able to flexibly and rapidly create functional products. Diverse competencies are built naturally in this environment where the team is on a mission and the skills of the people in the team, including the many skills people have that have not been learned at the workplace, are utilized as effectively as possible in order to reach the goal and not just within the confines of a role description.

Both Lean and Agile have recognized that too much of a good thing can be bad. While division of labor has enabled mankind to progress, taken to the extreme it becomes a limiting factor that reduces the effectiveness of companies and hinders personal growth.

Role-oriented or mission-oriented teams and recruitment

What kind of a team would you rather lead? A role-oriented team where every member is a highly skilled specialist in their own narrow field, or a mission-oriented team where every member is committed to completing the mission, no matter what skills they need to use or learn?

And if you chose the team with a mission, why is your company still recruiting primarily based on role and not mission?


Photo: VFS Digital Design Agile Project Management @ Flickr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.