What’s all the fuss about roles in horizontal teams and organizations?

If your team or organization is on a journey to be more democratic, participatory or inclusive, you will at some point likely bump up against this notion of roles. It’s a notion that is both simple and elusive at the same time. I have multiple roles in my life from entrepreneur to mother and I show up in each differently. But what exactly does this mean in the workplace where we tend to rely on job descriptions?

My intention here is to demystify this concept of roles so that you might feel more at ease to work with them in contrast to relying exclusively on job descriptions.

How are roles different from job profiles?

I like to help people see the difference between role functioning and job profile functioning in three ways:

1. From Ownership to Stewardship

A role doesn’t belong to a person but rather to the team, division or organization. You don’t own a role, you are just caring for it for a time. Someone else was caring for it before you, and someone will care for it after you.

2. From Tasks to Accountabilities

A role is not a list of tasks but rather a list of accountabilities that need to be taken care of. For example, I can be accountable for “Maintaining good relationships with the business lawyer”. This does not mean I am the only one to engage with the business lawyer. I might want to create ways of helping everyone develop their capacity to do this well.

3. From Individual to Collective

It is important that everyone know the purpose of a role, what it includes, and who is taking care of it at any given time. Being explicit helps to practice collective accountability. From one person to the next a role will be improved and resources to support it organized. It’s important that everyone knows what all the roles are about.

Roles help a group of people take shared responsibility for some parts of an organization. In so doing, it helps get beyond silos and strengthen organizational capacity to collaborate.

What does a role look like?

Roles need to be fine-tuned to match the specific nature and flavor of an organization. At Percolab, Coop roles are matched to our specific flavor and nature, in that we are a worker run cooperative and each of us has a foundational team player/co-manager role. Beyond that, we have 10 roles that are distributed amongst the team to help our company function and evolve.

Here are three to help you get the idea:

a) External content pilot

Support team members to capture and articulate work, models, learning, activities out to the world (With help from communications expert, community managers

b) Partnership builder

Establish partnerships that amplify and grow our work. (With help from business lawyer)

c) Learning booster

Strengthen future of work and developmental practices of our community and beyond

The architecture of any role includes:

  • a title
  • a purpose (links to other roles or support)
  • a list of accountabilities (NOT tasks)
  • a few metrics to measure success (how we can know it is faring well)

5 steps to role creation

I have developed a short 5 step process to get a group started on roles that takes only 2 hours. It is based on two assumptions.

Assumption #1 : A team or group has the intuitive know- how to about how to structure roles for their particular context.

Assumption #2 : An agile, iterative process is the best way to do this rather than trying to figure it all out theoretically, and then rolling it out.

Here is the process. At each step it is important to record key words spoken on a large flip chart/online wall.

1. Anchor the process and activate what people know with a first go-around, for example, “–What excites you about strengthening your self managing culture today?” Each person speaks what they have to say. There is no conversation, and no-one comments about it. Folks are just witnessing one another.

2. Do a second go-around to share: What do you already know about roles? What’s clear and what’s not clear? What is important to you, about roles, in the context in which we find ourselves now? Again, no discussion; just witnessing without judgement.

3. A third go- around, to share 2–3 possible roles for the team or organization. Again, no discussion or debate on this. Continue recording on the flip chart.

4. Now pick a role you would like to create. Each person names one; and then, on your own or in pairs, take 20–30 minutes to write a first draft with the different parts of the role architecture. When you have done as much as you can, give it to someone to improve upon it a bit more.

5. Come back as a group and, one by one, read out loud a role and agree that it as “good enough for now” to get started.

Easy as that, and you will have a very basic role system that can grow and adjust with time. When you iterate roles, you can simply read them out loud and give people an opportunity to take 20–30 minutes in pairs to improve them.

You can use many different feedback processes to improve the roles. For example, one of our colleague created the “Triple A feedback”. In pairs or in small groups including the role steward, we make rounds of Appreciation, Amplification and Adjustment about the purpose, accountabilities, metrics, etc. The proposed improvements are then presented and adopted by the team.

How to move in and out of roles (in a horizontal way)?

If no one person gets to allocate roles, then what? How do you attribute them fairly and efficiently? Here is a process I like to use built on a key horizontal practice of inviting rather than delegating. It helps people see when it makes sense to release a role or to step up to take one on. I run it in two phases on a single day with some breathing space between the two, even if it is just lunch

Phase I: Reconnecting With the Roles

People need a reminder of what the current roles are, and an opportunity to improve upon them. This process is done with team-members — taking turns.

1. One person reads out loud a role-description; — the title, purpose, resources, responsibilities and indicators. Check to see if everyone can live with it as is, or if there is something that absolutely needs to be adjusted. Keep it tight!

2. Pass the paper/screen to the next and person who repeats step 1 for the next role. Continue until all roles have been clarified.

3. Now, write down each role title on index cards to have a simple visual overview of all the roles.

4. Ask the question, “Are there any new roles needed?” If so, you might want to take a moment for a role- writing sprint, — or, set up a group to take it on depending on how agile you want to be.

5. Finish by inviting everyone to identify in their mind a role they might want to try out for an hour or two to see how it feels. Pick one, you don’t even have to tell anyone. Just sit with the feeling of holding that role for the team/organization and if it feels like you would up to the challenge.

Phase II: Attribution of Roles

With a role-based system, you can be more conscious about how the work is generating learning and motivation. We use the following guideline:

Take on a role based on a mix of your expertise in the area, your desire to learn the role, and your energy and motivation.

Here is a non-hierarchical attribution process I really like.

1. Invitations

Gather together around the available roles, with all the people who might be interested in taking them on. Take a moment, and look at all the roles and all the people. Think of someone you could see holding a role (not yourself) for the next while. Each person writes on an index card (or post-it) the name of someone whom they feel could steward the role well at this time now. Go around with each person sharing what they have written and why. The name of the person invited is put beside the card with the role written on it. The person who is invited does not say or do anything, simply witness and silently receive the invitation. If necessary, do another round until there are no more invitations that need to be spoken. Some roles might have more than one person invited — that’s fine. Don’t rush this. It’s important work.

2. Reactions

Each person shares their strongest reactions. We focus our talk on just that. For example, I might share how one role I was invited into was causing my stomach to clench. Or someone might share that there was a role she had so much energy for and no one had invited her to it. As we do the reaction round, we do not discuss the reactions, we just witness them (yes, with a bit of self-discipline, it’s possible).

3. Accept or refuse an invitation

If you feel aligned to the invitation, you put the post- it with your name directly onto the corresponding index card. Continue one after the other until each invitation has been fully dealt with. At this point, people might add their names to index cards even though no one has invited them. They are invited to share why they see themselves in this role. Keep a visual trace to the role card (for example a star) to keep the memory that this role was self-selected, and not an invitation from colleagues.

4. Selection and objections

Now, each person takes a turn to select a role they would like to steward for a while. It is important that: (1) Each person chooses the role they will be stewarding (versus being delegated) and, (2): that the team is also ok with it. It is the team’s job to take care of the organization first and the individual second. (that might sound harsh, but everyone is in service to the organizational purpose). Everything done thus far just helps everyone to think and see more consciously. A show of thumbs suffices to quickly sound the group to see if everyone is aligned with the choices. can live with this for the organization. If someone is hesitating, take the time to hear the reason(s), and also to see if the concern is rooted in holding the collective’s best interests at heart. In the past I have objected (a little too strongly even) to a colleague who was taking on more than I thought she would be able to handle. She acknowledged my feeling and put a role back in the centre. Of course there is a little crunch at the end. Who will take the last roles? If this happens, sit with it together, slowly until the wise path forward appears. Once distribution is complete take a moment to let it sink in and do a final validation. Everyone can then hold up their roles together to see the big picture, and once again confirm that it is all ok. If it is not, take the time to address what arises (if you did the earlier steps well, nothing normally will). Take a photo and celebrate!

Two final tips

First, resist the temptation to have people take on a role together. Remind everyone that roles are by definition collaborative but a single person is better to hold it. It is not a turf- based system. It asks for flow, honesty and self-awareness.If someone else has the required energy to take on a role right now, know that, and let them know it will be passed on to them soon.

Second, a buddy system can help prepare someone to step into a role in the future. Keep track of who expresses an interest in taking on a new role. Make sure everyone has expressed interest and invite folks to take the necessary steps to scaffold the knowledge.


The result of these practices is a shared awareness, and agreement throughout the team, on what the roles are, and who is stewarding each role. The challenge moving forward is to keeping information flowing within what is going on with a role, and accommodating a process where everyone can speak up if there is an issue of accountability.

Finally, a small reminder that you do not need to do this full process all at once, or all the time. Remember, you can also have mini-checkins where people speak about how it is going. This provides an ongoing chance to see if any one role needs to be put back in the centre to be reattributed.

If you want to know more about roles, and more generally the practices encouraging autonomy in horizontal organizations, I invite you to read my book Going Horizontal. Check out, especially chapter 3 on the topic of autonomy! And visit the website to find out about upcoming trainings.

Thanks to all those who helped me get this article out — Stéphanie Bossé, Leah Vineberg, Karine Zuffrey, Brian Joseph, Denis Côté and to all my colleagues at Percolab with whom I am lucky to experiment.