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Wonderful workplaces: how to design 'doable jobs' for staff

Staff are happiest and most productive when their jobs are “doable” – so how do we go about achieving this state of workplace nirvana, ask Lubna Haq and Sharon Crabtree.

Alex is one of seven divisional heads of a global engineering company. The newly merged organisation now manufactures parts as well as supplying services. Alex is expected to formulate the long term strategy for the division, manage all parts of the supply chain and ensure day-to-day operations run smoothly.

Alex is struggling. However long the working day, he is always playing catch-up.

Does this situation sound familiar? Probably. The NHS is changing and success rests on new ways of working. With constant changes, organisational mergers, new jobs being created and new organisations being established it is not surprising that people right across the NHS find themselves lacking clarity about what successful delivery in the role looks like and, too often, find themselves appointed to jobs that will lead to inevitable failure.

People and organisations perform best when work is assigned to well-designed jobs and when jobs are organised into effective units. When jobs are clearly defined, people take the initiative and appropriate risks and innovate as they understand their roles and how their work relates to the work of others in the organisation.

Determining a job’s do-ability is a function of understanding the job, the work and the organisation’s mission. If a job is un-doable, it was probably incorrectly designed. And it will continue to invite failure for jobholder after jobholder.

If a job is too big, with too many reports, too much accountability and too little responsibility, the likelihood of success is slim. A job may stretch jobholders too thin (and run the risk of snapping them) instead of stretching them correctly so they grow with the organisation.

By looking at the size of the job, spans of control and the right supporting structures which take into account both the long and short term, it tells us what it feels like to perform in a particular role.

Jobs with a high degree of responsibility and a need to apply conceptual and strategic skills will feel challenging and stretching. This may give the organisation considerable “bang for its buck” but striking the right balance is tricky.

For example, for any given level of required skills and knowledge, jobs that have a high requirement for problem solving but low discretion are likely to result in boredom, demotivation and frustration. They are also unnecessarily expensive and wasteful.

Jobs that have high discretion, a low requirement for problem solving and relative skills in knowledge may result in stress, overload and tunnel vision.

Back to basics

When organisations come together, there is a temptation to slot or lift and drop roles together. But this rarely works successfully. Instead, there is a need to go back to basics. Look at what the new organisation needs to achieve and the overall strategy. Design the new operating model to take into account all parts of the joined-up organisation, identify underpinning principles for how it will work and design the structures, then roles, to deliver this.

A job should be coherent and clear, taking into consideration each accountability, authority and an attainable range of capabilities. Put simply, if a job requires too diverse a range of skills and competencies, it will be hard to find people for the role and performance could be compromised. If accountabilities are too diverse within a single role, the role holder may not be using their skills valuably or be stretched so far that there is significant risk.

There are undoubtedly people out there who are managing to cope with the most un-doable jobs. These are people who are able to influence others to bring out the best in them and set a clear direction for different areas – then step back and allow them to get on with it.

People who have progressed in their career by becoming functional experts are unlikely to have the experience, capability or competencies to be able to keep all of the balls in the air. For most people we need to consider their skills and knowledge, experience and leadership capabilities to achieve “optimum job do-ability”.

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Lubna Haq and Sharon Crabtree’s matrices on staff moves are attached right >>

First, the size of the job needs to be considered. Hay Group defines how jobs are differentiated in terms of step difference, and a typical promotion involves a “two step” move. However, there is a danger of making a promotion that’s too big a step for the person and the organisation and this represents a significant risk.

For example, imagine a district hospital general manager being promoted to a director level role in a large acute hospital – this promotion is not a viable career move and leaves structures with a huge gap which indicates a “missing” layer of management.

A typical promotion with the right amount of stretch and challenge would be an associate director being promoted to a director. The challenge will come from operating at a more strategic level and perhaps from the size of the organisation.

As well as job size, the shape of the job also needs consideration. Jobs of the same size may be very different in the types of accountabilities captured within them and therefore feel very different. A job which is formulating policy feels very different from one providing frontline services.

Six of the best

Here are our six principles to ensure your people have doable jobs

  1. Focus on the big picture. Be clear about the strategy of the new organisation and the structure needed to deliver this. Don’t take shortcuts.
  2. Design each job carefully. Define the accountabilities that need to be delivered and ensure these are built into jobs. Make sure each job has a distinct contribution and that it adds value.
  3. Make sure the job is doable. Check each job to be clear that the shape maximises the likelihood of success. There should be an appropriate number of accountabilities so that the job is challenging but achievable.
  4. Have crystal clear interdependencies. Jobs and processes should be designed to support the key inter-relationships of accountabilities when they require collaboration across functions. These interdependencies need to be crystal clear and connected.
  5. Give your staff the freedom to act. Well designed jobs have explicit decision making authority which must be commensurate with the accountabilities. Without the appropriate decision making authority, people cannot, or will not act as required by their jobs.
  6. Make sure your teams are accountable, too. Although these principles have been described primarily in terms of individual jobs, each one applies equally to teams. Research conducted by Hay Group and Harvard University suggests that the most effective teams are those in which there is absolute clarity and clear value regarding the team’s role, and the expected contribution from each member.

The real strength of our six principles is that they can be applied to restructuring efforts of all sizes and scope. Organisations that adopt this discipline will be able to continuously evolve in a manner that drives their strategy and enables them to compete in an ever-changing and increasingly complex environment.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Easy in theory but difficult to apply in practice

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  • It may be difficult, but at least if managers are thinking about this and making some effort to consider and do something about these points, staff are less likely to be driven out of the NHS through frustration or burnout - which personally I have seen too many times, to the detriment of those individuals and the NHS. We are wasting good people through poor job design (or rather no job design at all).

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  • Also budgets often dictate - what job can you affors to have rather than what is needed!

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  • "manager" that term often get's used where blame is implied. I think commissioners, national bodies etc all have responsibility

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