The importance of role definitions in an organization

This post is for Day 9 of Mercari Advent Calendar 2022, brought to you by @stouf from the Mercari Personalization Core team.

Whether you are aware of it or not, you are probably familiar with the concept of role. You have probably used terms such as “CEO” or “Customer Support” countless times. One problem with roles is that, although we all use the same terms, we do not necessarily all have the same understanding of what they imply. It can lead to situations where a deep misunderstanding goes unnoticed for a little while, leading to unwanted results.
With this article, I will go through the risks of misalignments borned from different understanding of the same roles, how we define roles at Mercari and the challenges that come with that effort.

The risks with being misaligned on role definitions

Let us start by going over the problems with not having a clear definition of the roles in your organization

Having a different understanding of given roles means that there could be misalignments in terms of expectations in your organization. Although having clear expectations towards each other is a powerful tool for managing efforts, having unclear expectations, on the contrary, can be a true recipe for disaster. The last thing you want is a situation where no one is taking actions to solve a given problem because everyone thinks it is someone else’s responsibility to do so. Having unclear expectations can create considerable delays in your operations, and can also create conflicts and frictions among the members of your organization, which will eventually affect the morale of your teams.

Another risk is destabilizing newcomers. Even if you managed to perfectly define the roles in your organization, those role definitions are very likely to be different from the role definitions of other organizations. Without a clear definition of your roles, newcomers are very likely to join the organization with their own interpretation of their role and may be surprised, if not disappointed, after realizing that their interpretation is different from the reality. Onboarding is a critical step for any newcomer, and not having clear role definitions is a potential friction to that important process.

Misalignment can also impact members of the organization looking into transitioning to another role. A role transition can be an important step in someone’s career; it is usually not a decision taken lightly and requires considering many factors. One of those factors is the expectations associated with the potentially new role. Not having a clear definition of roles adds a lot of uncertainty to people looking into transitioning. Even worse: realizing after transitioning to a new role that the expectations are different than what you thought could be an extremely bitter experience.

How we define roles at Mercari

Now that we covered the risks of not having clear role definitions, let us see how we define roles at Mercari.

We obviously start with people occupying the target roles. We ask them what they think the expectations associated with their role are. We also make sure to reach out to a vast diversity of people to maximize our chances of covering all the expectations associated with the targeted roles.
We also ask the opinions of people working with those occupying the target roles. Those people may bring up elements that those occupying the target roles would not think about. Here too, the goal is to capture the widest possible range of opinions and maximize the accuracy of our role definition.

Finally, probably the most important part of this process: making it an iterative process with living documentation. Your organization will evolve over time, so will your roles and the associated expectations. Therefore, it is important to keep assessing the accuracy of your role definitions continuously.

At Mercari, we do that by making our role definitions open to everyone in the organization and by making it possible for anyone to propose amendments. More concretely speaking, our role definitions live in a GitHub repository and everyone in the organization can access it, raise issues or submit pull requests.
A task force worked on creating a first definition for a few roles and spread awareness of those through the organization, mentioning that they are open to discussions and contributions.

The challenges

All this obviously comes with its set of challenges. The biggest one for us was engagement. As mentioned above, everyone has their own interpretation of their role. As such, not everyone feels directly concerned by the importance of having an explicit definition of the role they occupy.

In most cases, people are aligned enough so they can carry out their duty without encountering significant friction. As a consequence, for most people, reading a definition of their role feels like investing time into reading something they already know about, which significantly impacts their motivation to contribute to the effort.
Similarly, those who originally joined the organization with different expectations were very likely able to realign themselves despite the friction and may not feel concerned by the effort either.

To address that, we tried something very simple: we sent requests for comments throughout the entire organization. Unfortunately, the response rate was below our expectations. It confirmed that people are not likely to contribute to an initiative unless they feel concerned by the problems it tries to address.
Reflecting on all that, we eventually came to the conclusion that role definition documents may simply not be documents with a high level of engagement. In the end, they are only needed in specific situations such as newcomers joining the organization, someone considering a transition to a new role or clarifying expectations in terms of responsibilities.
Based on all that, we believe that referencing role definition documents in relevant places such as onboarding documents or documents about promotions should give them the right amount of exposure they actually need.

Wrap-up

With this article, I explained how important it is to have clearly defined roles when it comes to aligning expectations within an organization. Not having clear role definitions may impact members of the organization on their day-to-day activities, but may also impact the onboarding of newcomers and people transitioning into a new role.
Keeping role definitions updated as the organization evolves is critical. For that, at Mercari we have made our role definitions internally open for both reading and amendment.
Role definition documents are by nature not consulted on a daily basis and it can be easy to forget about them. That is why it is important to make sure they are being referenced in places where they are relevant.

Tomorrow’s article, for the 10th day of Mercari Advent Calendar will be by vaibhav.jain. Please look forward to it!