Taking the pain out of authoring job descriptions

When I was at the University of Chicago, I often approached authoring or updating job descriptions from a broad team perspective rather than always narrowly looking at them from the individual contributor viewpoint. As such, I developed an approach toward authoring job descriptions that  looked at the development of individuals as part of a whole team who, together, contribute to the collective growth of all staff members. This update to the republished the blog post includes a link to the Job Definition Grid worksheet that is referenced in the prose (updated 14 Oct 2013).

The starting point for most administrative tasks tends to be with verbiage. I’ve sat in numerous meetings where the first order of business was to write something, and usually end up arguing about definitions and syntax and forget why we gathered in the first place. After a couple of hours, we leave the meeting with a lame chunk of prose and huge pile of dissatisfaction. When it comes to the nuts-and-bolts of collaboratively redefining individual roles in a dynamic organization, having the typical administrative prose-writing session is not the answer.

Several years ago, I had a micro-retreat with one of my staff who was having difficulty figuring out what the junior staff member was supposed do. The job description outlined a set of tasks, but they had little to do with the actual work. It was clear to the both of us (and her manager who was out on leave at the time) that what was envisioned in the hiring process was not what we actually needed in terms of staff support. Since we had escaped to a classroom far from technology and telephones, and whose walls were covered with blackboards, I started to visualize the problem in chalk. By the end of the meeting, we’d come to an understanding as to what roles everyone had within the group, where the weaknesses were, and how to define current and future roles on paper. We’d also stumbled onto the Job Definition Grid (JDG).

The JDG is a simple three-dimensional matrix that captures tasks, people, and time in a single diagram where one can see where people fit within an organization, what support holes exist, and how areas may have too much support. Like position descriptions, the JDG takes broad strokes toward identifying individual roles and it is meant to capture average activity over the course of the year. In addition, the JDG is only really useful in related operations (such as specialized units or departments) with similar task and skill areas.

A JDG is constructed by creating a table that contains the names of ever staff member within a particular unit listed as column headings across the top of the grid. Rows are defined by categories of broad and related tasks pertinent to the unit. As I’ve found, there are usually around 10 broadly defined tasks within any group. From a job description standpoint, these tasks will provide the basis for the categories of tasks the staff member will be expected to undertake, and subareas within each task can be detailed and broken out. Each cell represents two things, present-day time spent on tasks and future (where you want to be) time spent on tasks (after positions have been redefined and adjusted). Future can be two weeks from now or two years; that is up to the supervisor to decide. As working through this process typically occurs on a two-dimensional medium such as a whiteboard or sheet of paper, representing the three-dimensional nature of the cells (present and future time spent on task) can be a problem. Therefore, I typically divide each cell with a diagonal line and break it into two halves. The upper-left half of a cell represents current time spent on task and the lower-right is the future time spent on task. In both cases, the time is represented as the percentage of a typical work week.

With the JDG created, now comes the tough part — filling in the percentages. When I first worked through the process, there was a tendency to try to put miniscule or fractional percentages in each cell for every person. Though at times such a distribution may be true, the JDG is supposed to represent the average amount of time spent on tasks over the course of a year. Trying to wrap one’s mind around small percentages seems rather complicated and from an operational standpoint, noise, so I established a simple rule: if the work week is five days, then each day is 20 percent of the week and a half-day is 10 percent, so the smallest allowable time unit is a half-day or 10 percent and all calculations must be made in whole or half-days (try rationally explaining 25 percent of a 37.5-hour week to a staff member — 9.375 hours or 9h 22.5 minutes — it is just easier to think about morning and afternoon, day and half-day). From there, I further stated that in most cases, 10 percent of the week needs to be set aside for “other duties as assigned” to account for the fractional percentages and operation noise that is too small to be reasonably accounted in the table as a half-day or more. Admittedly, 10 percent still may be too broad so five percent may also work provided you can think of the time in realistic chunks and not arbitrary mathematical abstractions. In this case, five percent could represent half of a morning (time between a morning break and lunch, for example). The important part is to settle on a tangible understanding of time based on rough real-world approximation rather than resorting to bean-counting that doesn’t map to a persons actual life.

The next step is to work through the JDG with the appropriate manager and supervisor. In my case, we discuss the tasks and try to assign current percentage of time spent on task for each staff member. Because we’ve limited ourselves to days and half-days, all of the percentages end up being in tens of percent and ultimately, fairly easy to think about and describe to others. People can easily relate to a half-day, day, or multiple days spent on something.

Once the whole grid is filled out for current time, we look ahead to the future. Depending on the reason for using the grid, this may turn to redefining current roles to fill gaps or reduce over-support, identify a need for new staff, or to define staff growth and development. Personally, I’ve used the JDG for all three with great success. The key questions I ask the manager whose unit is being analyzed is where do they want to be and what to they want to be doing. Most of the time, they immediately identify the task that is consuming most of their time and reduce it. From there, they discuss options, shift the percentages around for themselves, and fill in new numbers in the lower-right corner of every cell. We then move on to their staff, usually that is the next most senior member and so on, until the entire JDG is filled out. We then total the current percentages for each task and compare those to the totals for the tasks in the future to determine if there are any holes or over-support. If there is over-support, we go back and look at the allocations for the future; if there are holes, then we either try to see how to fill them or depending on the purpose of the exercise, define and new role that would need to be filled.

At this point, the information in the JDG can be used in a number of ways. The most common for me is to use the Grid as a basis for rewriting or creating a new job description. I take a look at the future percentages and what categories they map to, and use that breakdown for the work breakdown that is at the core of many position descriptions. From there, I create prose around the both the categories and percentages, and then develop the overall paragraphs that both define and support the need for the post. In addition, the information within the JDG can also help identify particular candidate requirements and other position needs that may otherwise fail to be uncovered.

All told, the JDG is an effective tool to encourage discussion and thought around staff roles within an organization. It can be a powerful technique to draw together staff and supervisors into the process of defining the future of a unit where everyone is a stakeholder. I suggest giving it a try.