Back to all posts
Libby Marks

Understanding Role Design: A Step-by-Step Guide

Discover the secret of great role design - from the science of how it works to the step-by-step process of designing better jobs in your business.

Discover the secret of great role design - from the science of how it works to the step-by-step process of designing better jobs in your business. 

Role design is the practice of purposefully crafting roles within your organization. It’s about more than just writing a job description so you can quickly fill a post. It’s about strategically designing each role to improve the performance of individual role-holders and the organization overall.

If you’ve not heard of role design, don’t worry. Edwin Jansen (CEO at Fuse Cooperative, you’ll learn more about him later) says it is the most influential performance strategy.

In their bestseller - Primed to Perform - Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor say role design explains:

  • 34% of the variance in subjective performance
  • 38% in perceived stress
  • 55% in job satisfaction
  • 65% in feeling overloaded
  • 87% in job involvement

Given these big numbers, it’s unsurprising that role design can make or break business performance. But what exactly is it?

In this article, you’ll learn what role design is, how it improves job performance, and how to do it like a boss.

What is role design?

Role design is the process of defining and structuring a job role. Working out the responsibilities of the job holder, the tasks they’ll perform, and how they’ll fit into the overall organizational structure to contribute to its success. 

Role design is an essential part of recruitment and talent acquisition. But it’s about more than just filling vacancies. A key part of human resource planning, a well-defined job role lays the foundation for employee and business performance.

What does role design involve?

Role design - at a basic level - involves three main elements:

  • Job analysis
  • Role definition
  • Qualification criteria

Job analysis is the systematic analysis of the vacancy to be created or filled. You want to understand exactly what the job entails and the tasks it performs.  

Role definition is concerned with defining the purpose and objectives of the role - why does this role exist within the organization and how does it contribute to overall business success?

Qualification criteria specify the skills, experience, academic qualifications, and personal attributes required for an individual to be considered for the role. 

We’ll cover these more in the ‘how to’ section below. 

However, there is a deeper and more strategic way to look at role design. But before we get to that, we need to look at some key concepts.

The impact of role design on performance

Before we explain how performance is improved by strategic role design, we need to understand some of the principles behind high performance in organizations—specifically, the following two concepts.

  • Tactical vs adaptive performance
  • Direct vs indirect motivators

Tactical vs adaptive performance

If tactical performance is how well people follow your organizational processes and practices, adaptive performance is how well they diverge from the plan.

It’s about your people being able to adapt to circumstances as they arise because they have:

  • Confidence
  • Common sense
  • And creative thinking 

But also your organizational culture enabling them to do that well by providing:

Adaptive performance makes your business more responsive to emerging opportunities and challenges, which can deliver a significant competitive advantage.

But roles that are overly prescriptive - and designed without the bigger picture in mind - crush adaptive performance.

Direct vs indirect motivators

Doshi and McGregor argue that there are three direct motivators.

  • Play is the autonomy and ability to be intellectually curious at work. It’s about experimenting with new ways of doing things and personally creating impact.
  • Purpose is ‘why’ people work - their sense of connectedness to a higher purpose and doing meaningful work
  • Potential is how work gets someone where they ultimately want to be - professionally or personally - such as through experience, personal growth, and training

Three indirect motivators:

  • Emotional pressure - such as fear of punishment or judgment 
  • Economic pressure - such as needing to earn a specific amount of money
  • Inertia - the lack of impetus to change one’s circumstances 

Direct motivators increase employee motivation at work and improve performance. The indirect motivators decrease personal motivation. However, many organizations mistakenly believe the opposite.

They implement emotional and economic pressure - like bonuses, sales targets, and fear of reprimand - to improve performance. But actually undermine it. 

Role design that harnesses direct motivators is proven to drive long-term performance improvements (and we’re going to show you how to do it).

How role design improves performance - the science 

Now you understand those key concepts, how do you use them? How do they help you craft roles that inspire high performance?

You need to understand that traditional role design is concerned with maximizing tactical performance. Organizations have jobs to be done. They design roles around specific functional tasks. And identify academic and professional experience that qualifies people to perform them. 

And voila, they’ve designed a job, written a job description, and started recruiting.

However, to improve individual and organizational performance, you need to design roles that also maximize adaptive performance and harness the three direct motivators.

It’s a tough ask. But simply designing roles for tactical performance reduces autonomy, engagement, and motivation at work. 

Organizations may deliver their short-term needs very well. But in an ever-evolving landscape, they get stuck - anchored to the spot with job descriptions that are growing ever less relevant. And with colleagues who are disconnected and disempowered. 

As the business landscape changes - and organizational performance suffers - the business introduces more indirect motivators. Like management pressure, and performance metrics. But these make matters worse. 

According to Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor’s book, leaders try to change the players when they should be changing the game. 

And role design is the game changer. 

How to design a role step-by-step - the basics

OK. With that knowledge in mind, let’s look at the basic three-step process of role design. 

how to design a role

Step 1 - Role definition

This step is about defining the purpose of the role within the business.

Some step-by-step role design processes recommend this after the job analysis. But we think that’s putting the cart before the horse. 

The role definition is the big picture, the job analysis is the granular detail. To be truly transformative, we think the big picture needs to come first.

Start with organizational and contextual analysis

Seek an understanding of overall organizational goals and key external/internal factors affecting business performance. Look at industry trends and internal dynamics to think about how this role might contribute to future success.

Look beyond the current duties and responsibilities

If you’re redesigning an existing role, don’t just rubberstamp what currently happens. Question whether it’s fit for purpose now? How does it align with the company’s goals and direction of travel? How can it develop to stay relevant in the future? 

Think about meaning and purpose

We’ll cover this more in our advanced techniques but don’t limit role design to mechanical ‘jobs to be done’ and task definition. Think about creating a role that creates a sense of ownership and purpose in the role holder. Consider how you can make work more meaningful by breaking it down according to the impact it makes rather than the tasks it delivers.

Step 2 - Job analysis

This stage is about identifying the specific processes and tasks a role will be responsible for. When defining a new role, you break down strategy into process, then process into tasks. When redefining an existing role, you look at how a job is currently performed and if it needs updating. 

Choose your methods and gather information 

To analyze a job, you typically start by deciding how you’ll perform the analysis - such as interviewing existing role holders, conducting surveys, and observing people at work. Gather information about the job such as job descriptions, organizational charts, performance metrics, and industry standards.

Observe and interview role holders

If the job already exists, watch the role being performed and talk to role holders. Ask open-ended questions to understand where the role works and doesn’t. Assure confidentiality so team members can speak freely about limitations, frustrations, and ideas for improvement.

Talk to subject matter experts

The role holder is the real SME but talk to people who might have additional insights on improving the role, such as managers and internal customers. You might also find experts in the field who can advise where the role is going in the future - for example, tech that will change the role’s tasks and necessary qualifications.

Analyze your data

Equipped with the information you’ve collected, analyze it for insights. Your job is to be critical and constructive.

  • Is the job still fit for purpose? 
  • Is it fit for future challenges and opportunities? 
  • Are people in the role happy, engaged, and productive?
  • How does the role fit within the wider organization to create value? 
  • Are there environmental or external factors that impact performance? 

Develop a draft job description 

From here, you can begin to define and design the role. This should include the purpose of the role, how it fits in the organization, the key duties and responsibilities, specific tasks, and required skills. Then you need to validate your draft with key stakeholders. Do they agree with your new role design? Take on board any feedback and finalize.

Step 3 - Qualification criteria

The final step is to decide what criteria qualify someone to be considered for the role. This is more nuanced than you might think.  

Don’t overreach 

Good role design considers qualification criteria very carefully to ensure business needs are met, without being prohibitive or discriminatory - for example, asking for a Master’s degree for an entry-level position.  

Although using academic achievement might seem a good way to set a high bar and attract quality, it actually narrows your net. Unless a Master’s degree is really needed, don’t ask for one. You’ll exclude perfectly qualified candidates who may not have had the same privilege to achieve certain academic standards. 

Equally, don’t ask for five years’ experience when three years will do. Tackle bias in your qualification criteria to support diversity, equality, and inclusion efforts. 

Include development in role design

Remember to include professional development in your role design. Consider how you’ll develop your new hire to grow with the business and job. Upskilling and support aren’t just important for you to know from the get-go, it’s also important for candidates when they apply.

Role design - advanced techniques

You’re now ready - in theory - to publish your job description and start recruiting. But we’ve got some advanced role design tips that will elevate your practice even higher. Why? Doshi and McGregor explain.

The most powerful and overlooked source of motivation is the design of a person’s role within an organization [...] Rarely do we craft a role that inspires total motivation and adaptive performance. Poorly designed roles can make it almost impossible to create a high-performing culture.

With that in mind, let’s jump in.

Bake the bigger picture into roles

To inspire employee motivation and adaptive performance, role design must connect colleagues with their purpose - the ‘why’ behind their work. 

Great role design doesn’t assume people will be able to see the ‘why’. It makes it crystal clear. 

It does this by building the bigger picture into every individual role. It creates a role that:

  • Gives the role holder ownership of the end-to-end process
  • Shows them the impact they’re having - in the business and the lives of customers
  • Inspires adaptive performance to develop better ways of working 

Primed to Perform cites the historic example of ‘keypunchers’ in an insurance firm. 

The keypunchers translated written documents into cards with holes punched in them. Each stage of the process was handled by a different person. There was an assignment clerk, a keypuncher, and a supervisor who liaised with internal customers. Each role was focused on one small part of the process. 

‘The approach is logical. If we were building machines to do this work, we’d design one machine for each step. The trouble is people aren’t machines [...] They become demotivated.’ 

The keypunchers were bored, disgruntled, and downright hostile. So the insurance firm redesigned the roles. Instead of isolated tasks, each keypuncher was given a specific internal customer to serve. And they owned the end-to-end process personally. 

The result? 

  • They developed personal relationships with customers and saw the impact of their work 
  • They understood process problems better and used their initiative to solve them
  • Individual and team performance improved - and so did customer satisfaction 

To improve your role design, think how you can create jobs that connect colleagues directly with their personal impact. Understanding impact is the first step to owning it - and being motivated to continually improve it.

Harness people’s passions

During COVID-19, Edwin Jansen’s recruitment agency saw demand for recruitment services disappear overnight. Despite this, the business grew its net income by 650% in the first two years of COVID.

You can hear the whole inspirational story in the webinar. But long story short, Edwin attributes this success to the adaptive performance built into their company culture. 

The thing that rose to the top as the impetus was this teal operating system, which empowered every person to define what their greatest and most meaningful work is. And that's what I believe is actually most potentially valuable to resource managers. Because who knows best what their own greatest work could be? The individual knows. The manager does not know and could never know. So we actually ended up architecting a process called the role advice process, which empowers the individual to set their own course in the business - with the advice and consent of those around them.

Edwin describes role design as a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles. The circles represent what an individual is good at, what their personal motivations are, and what the business needs. In the middle of the circles is the sweet spot for high performance from an individual and organizational point of view.

To find this sweet spot, his ‘role advice process’ involves asking all team members two questions:

  • What are you good at? Your knowledge, skills, and experience. 
  • What are you passionate about? What do you want to do? What do you want to learn? What kind of difference do you want to make? 

This information is made available throughout the company - for Operations, HR, and Resource Managers - to align these skills and ambitions to business needs. 

The first step in this process is to recognize the value of understanding people’s passions - and developing a systematic approach to collecting, sharing, and using that information. This can help you connect colleagues to work they’ll find more meaningful.

Role design and resource management 

Role design is especially important in professional services firms because your business success depends on the people delivering your services. Strategic staffing is key to competitive advantage.

Well-defined roles help recruit people with the requisite skills and qualifications to deliver exceptional client services - whether that’s industry-specific expertise or skills like adaptive performance. 

Clearly defined roles also support project and resource managers to quickly and accurately assemble project teams with the skills for success.

Role clarity - paired with effective resource management practices - helps match the right people to the right projects. This reduces project risk and maximizes utilization rates.

As a resource manager reading this guide, you now know the secret sauce for high performance. Roles that connect people with their passions. Edwin Jansen says you should go and advocate for your right to design processes that make that systematic.  

We use a lot of “six hats” thinking. Information sharing is white hat. Processes are blue hat. Resource managers are white hat, and blue hat as it relates to role design. They should use Primed to Perform to go and tell the CEO “Here's why you should let me design the process because this is how we're going to be more productive.”

One way you can collate and share people’s passions is through a resource management platform like Runn. Using your centralized resource pool and people profiles, create a bespoke field for interests and ambitions.

That way, when a project comes up for a guitar manufacturer - for example - you can find the perfect axe enthusiast for the job. [Hear our COO Nicole Tiefensee talk about this in our on-demand webinar - What We’ve Learned for Conversations with 1,000 Resource Managers].

Learn more about Runn’s intuitive resource management platform, trusted by hundreds of professional service firms to accelerate and elevate their practice.

Enjoy the post? Sign up for the latest strategies, stories and product updates.

You might also like

Try Runn today for free!

Join over 10k users worldwide.
Start scheduling in less than 10 minutes.
No credit card needed