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Why clarify team roles (when moving to remote) with Cassie Solomon

Luke Szyrmer November 24, 2020 39

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Role clarity is one of the most common complaints of employees, especially when working across department lines. RACI expert Cassie Solomon details why this matters, and what to start doing about it.

You will discover:

  • Why role clarity is pretty close to a silver bullet, when troubleshooting team work
  • How to fix problems across department boundaries
  • What the “stealth lever” of organizational change is (hint: it’s in one of the RACI codes)
  • Why senior team misalignment undermines department collaboration, and more importantly, how to fix it

About Cassie Solomon

CASSIE A. SOLOMON is a highly experienced organizational development consultant and executive coach. She is the founder and president of The New Group Consulting, a firm dedicated to helping leaders design and implement successful change. Her book, Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work, co-authored with Greg Shea, is now updated for 2020 and beyond to help leaders successfully navigate the ever-increasing pace of change (February 11, 2020/Wharton School Press). Cassie is also an internationally recognized expert on the RACI project management tool and has used RACI to improve the performance of teams worldwide. She is the creator of RACI Solutions, a program and set of tools designed to enhance executive’s horizontal leadership skills and create high-performing cross-functional teams. 


And it’s a joint task that actually defines what makes a team, if you don’t have a joint task, you probably aren’t a team. They’re joint task is creating strategy. They have to think about. What kind of marketing should we have, even if I’m not the chief marketing officer? They have to think about what my portfolio of businesses, even if I’m not the CEO. It’s true that there are cross-functional team that sometimes behave like a working group instead of a team.

If you get them aligned on strategy, that’s very powerful for everyone else in the organization. And you can unleash that vision and other people can find their place in it. And all those other cross-functional teams are now executing something that fulfills that vision. 

You are listening to the online remotely podcast, the show dedicated to helping you lead distributed teams under difficult circumstances. I am the host, Luke Shurmur, and I’ve participated in or run distributed teams for almost a decade as a practitioner.

I’m speaking with experts on leadership, strategic alignment and remote work to help you navigate the issues you start facing after you get your working from home gear sordidness.

Welcome back. So today we are speaking with Kathy Solomon, who is an organizational development consultant and executive coach, she founded and leads a company called the New Group Consulting, where she helps leaders design and implement successful change. And she’s also the author of a book called Leading Successful Change. And part of this expertise also comes from her deep knowledge of the Racey tool, which is a kind of classic project management tool.

So today’s episode we cover y role clarity is not quite, but almost a silver bullet when troubleshooting team work, how to fix problems across department boundaries.

What the stealth lover of organizational changes and small hint here. It’s in one of the codes in racing. And finally, we wrap up with how senior team misalignment can undermine department collaboration and more importantly, how to fix it.

So let’s get on with the show because so welcome to the Aligner Remotely podcast. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got into teamwork in larger companies?


Look, I’m delighted to be here. That’s a great place to start. I started as a management consultant in a firm that spun out of the Wharton School of Business, and my specialty in that firm was really organizational change work. So people would bring us in when there were teams that were not working well or when there was a change initiative that was stuck. And as part of that work, we used this tool Racey actually teach this tool still at Wharton.

And one of the things that really struck me was that a lot of the problems that were being attributed to people’s personalities, like I’m having problems with Luke Luke from marketing is a jerk, really turned out to be more about role misunderstandings. And Racey was this kind of dead simple project management tool, really old fashioned, in fact, started in the mid 50s. And we would say before we get into all of that personality and the psychodynamics of your team, let’s just do a little role work first.

Let’s just straighten out the roles. It wasn’t a silver bullet, but it was pretty damn close when you got the roles straightened out, a lot of the other stuff would fall away. So that’s how I became a convert. I see.

OK, so Racey is an acronym for So What Does It Stand for exactly? Race is an acronym. It stands for the four roles in the racing model Responsible Authorized Consult and Inform. I wanted to say this is not the it’s something called a decision rights matrix. That’s a mouthful. It’s not the only one out there. There are variations of racey like rasti in DC. There’s a whole nother variation of it called rapide. Please don’t ask me to define that one because I can’t.

So the idea is that people are searching for a way to have a language to describe roles and races. The oldest and the best known of those.

Is it enough just to define in the language what everyone’s doing? What’s the best way to get started with it and to get something out of it right away?

So I actually teach that it is enough. The white paper that you can download from my website, which will be in the show notes, has a good explanation of the codes and then how to do a matrix. But I think the most important thing is that everyone defines the four codes the same way. And it’s a very simple tool. So it’s quite popular with global companies and with companies that are working across languages because you can get really confused when you’re we’re all working and see English as a second language about what you’re talking about.

But if you can teach people just these four codes and you can say across those different language differences, hey, I have the R for this, that basically means you’re saying I’m going to do the work are as the worker role. Or if you say to someone, I can’t figure out where the AI is, that means I don’t know where the decision is getting made because the AI is the decision. Well, so anyway, teaching these four codes the same way is pretty important, but it doesn’t take very long and it’s real simple.

OK, great.

So we have RNA and then what are C and I c stands for consult. This is the role where you’re giving advice, you have some expertise that someone else needs or they can’t do a good job. So typically if you have a. Zero, you’re offering that advice and expertise before the action is taken or before a decision is made, you can influence the decision, but you can’t make it. So if you have a C, I can ignore your advice and you don’t get to stop my project in its tracks on its way.

The eye roll is stands for Inform if you have an eye roll. No one is even asking for your opinion. They aren’t asking you to do any work and you certainly don’t get to make the decision in an April. All you do is receive information and it’s not an unimportant role. You may need this information in order to be able to do your job, but it’s the least involved of the four.

So would I necessarily need to be even included in, for example, meetings, or is it something that could just be done using, I don’t know, writing of some form?

I would recommend that I are not involved in working meetings. Think about a town hall where the purpose of the town hall is to communicate something to people. And I’m meeting and you want everybody there. But if you’re putting together a work group or project team, you really want people signing up to be in those teams slots with the intention of doing some work. I don’t even recommend that you bring three people into the project meetings. You can go get their advice offline.

They may be critically important. Think about legal, for example. You need to know what isn’t legal, but that doesn’t mean they have to come to all the meetings and sit there giving you their opinions.

Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. When I first came across this, we were using Scrum, the agile project management approach. I was pretty prescriptive about what? About what is ah and what is a missed the depth of racey because of that. It didn’t seem like it was giving me additional information, but it seems like there’s a lot more to it than just figuring out who shows up and what meeting.

I want to make a distinction between the kinds of risky charts that happen in the big project management world. Like Chevron showed me a two hundred and fifty step Racey chart and every step on that chart, the roles were fully delineated and this thing was really complicated. But there was a project manager whose job was tending to that see chart and making sure all of those steps took place. Everyone was doing their role on each of those steps. Most of us don’t have those project management resources.

Most of the people that I teach Racey to our managers and they just need a shorthand way to communicate about role so that things don’t get stuck. And I say make simple Racey charts that are ten or fifteen lines long, and if it needs to be more complex than that, break them into some charts, go off with your team and go do your own sub charts and subthemes.

Having their own chart kind of thing. Give you an example of that.

Look, just to bring that to life. I was with a client and they said we want to look back at our sales conference for last year because it was just a mess. We really stepped on each other’s toes. We had misunderstandings. Things fell through the cracks. We were fighting fires. We want to go back and use Racey to see if we can figure out why we were having that experience. And then we want to turn around and racey next year’s conference so that it doesn’t go that way, so that it goes better.

And as we worked our way through it, there were some really big blocks of things, like all of the logistics for the hotel. That particular step involved lots and lots of little steps, but they knew they should turn that over to their meetings department. So they just put it on the chart in a very simple way. Like everything that had to do with logistics for the meeting is the meetings department. They have the are they have the A we don’t even want to consult on it.

Just go do it.

And so that was taking up one line on their overview, Racey instead of taking up one hundred lines. So in terms of how it’s being used, it’s once it’s like one Rappard task almost, or is it because I thought it’d be more at the personal level than at the task level or this is where it would be fun to have something to draw on, like a whiteboard thing.

That’s the thing that’s genius about this little simple tool is that it actually is both. So you write the tasks down the left hand side. Imagine you’re looking at an Excel worksheet and column A is all the tasks and you write them down chronologically. This kind of forces the team to get clear about what the tasks are. So it’s already giving you a benefit. And then across the top, you write the different stakeholders that are involved. So that’s your personal level.

You can say Department of Marketing and you can say Cassi and you can say Joe, you can mix up groups and individuals and then in the middle and all those cells on the Excel spreadsheet, that’s where you fill in the code. So Joe has the work to do on task number two. He gets an R in his cell and if he only wants to contribute his opinion, he gets a C. And if you work through that with the team, usually you build that Racey chart together so that as you go, you’re negotiating the roles and you’re figuring out where the mystery is.

Often the mystery is we don’t really know who has the AI here. Guess we’d better figure that out. And the other thing I want to say about what you just said is you’re able to write down not just the tasks of a project, but you’re also able to write down the decision making nodes. If you think about what a flow chart is, a flow chart usually does a great job of telling you what the tasks are, but it often doesn’t call out decision nodes, good, good ones doing.

And so you’re working your way through the task, the flow chart. You had a decision node and you don’t know what to do because you don’t know where the decision is or the decision always floats up to as he’s read a book where they called it the highest opinion of the highest paid person in the room. He always goes to the hip, and that’s usually not what companies are trying to accomplish. If you think about the rhetoric around empowerment, I would say the rhetoric around empowerment can be made very visible with a good resee chart because you just ask the leaders, which decisions are you willing to let go of and where would you like them to live?

And if they say we’re not really willing to let go of any decisions, I say, then please don’t talk about empowerment because you’re just going to make people cynical makes total sense.

If everyone has this natural drive towards role clarification, what is it that happens when we don’t have that clarity on rules?

So I think this is particularly relevant to cross-functional team work and what we call horizontal work in my company. And I had a webinar a couple of weeks ago when we asked the people on it how much time they were spending, working with virtual cross-functional teams. And almost everyone on the call was spending at least 50 percent of their time in cross-functional teams. And there’s tremendous literature on what’s wrong with cross-functional teams and why they’re difficult. But I think they are especially subject to little confusion and role confusion has certain kind of symptoms.

You don’t walk into a meeting virtually or in person and say, gee, look, this looks like a real confused group.

But you can say if we’re a group that doesn’t know who makes decisions or if the workload feels out of balance, some of us are doing all the work or we get we the dynamics in the team or we’re fighting fires or we’re reactive instead of proactive.

We’re generally just poor morale. Those are some symptoms of real confusion. Those are the kinds of symptoms where someone would call in a consultant like me. And I would say, let’s start with role on the cross-functional team side.

Certainly within the software world, it does seem like creating any bit of software is only done by a cross-functional teams. Anything that’s of value is going to be crossing departmental lines is to the point where in these various agile approaches, they’re trying to promote that as one of the elements of the solution, so to speak. For it breaks down is precisely what we’re talking about here when people are just confused about words. So who does what? Yeah.

So I want to talk about Agile.

A couple of months ago, a client of mine came to me and said, I need you to study the difference between Racey and agile because I have people in my I.T. department that think that they don’t need racey because they’ve got agile and agile is working for them just fine. So I did a deep dive and some research online and I concluded that you really can have both that the agile team, if it’s small enough and working together often enough. Think about the daily stand up, for example.

They may not need to talk much about role. They’re working that out every time they have a daily stand up, they’re figuring out who does what. And they’re saying because this is part of the agile literature the team has the the team makes all of the decisions. I think that actually works in a smaller team, whether it’s cross-functional or not, that’s that intense. But as soon as you start talking about projects that span departments or that are more complex, that breaks down pretty quickly.

You can’t do that same daily huddle. Talk about every issue every day as a team. And that’s where the real confusion can come. And that’s where adding Racey onto an agile project can be really helpful. The one symptom that I think I hear a lot in software development is the blaming the business, the sort of blaming back and forth between the business and saying we can’t tell you what your business requirements are. You have to tell us and the business saying you’re not delivering value.


That something does come up. There are somewhat more radical solutions. Like what, for example, Spotify is done where they reorganize everybody into cross-functional business units and that kind of gets outside of the point.

But then again, not every company’s capable of doing that in terms of being that. Capable of adapting at that granular level, the whole organizational structure. My hunch is that they may not have explicitly used Racey, but they’ve thought very carefully about where the decisions were going to live, because you can reorganize all day long. But if you don’t address the decision making aspect of the organization or the culture, it’s just moving the lines in boxes around. I think that I actually think that’s why there often are one reorgs after another.

A company will do a reorgs thinking this is going to solve all of our problems. And then, oops, it just created a different set of problems, which is what reorgs are famous for. And then they reorgs again, which a little bit is that definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Why is it so important to make the element of making the decision explicit to help the organization work better as a whole? We’re moving into another area I love to talk about, which is the book that was recently revised and published by Wharton School Press called Leading Successful Change. And the model in that book, which was created by a Wharton colleague of mine, Greg Shea, basically says To be successful with change, you have to move at least four of the eight levers in the system.

And eight out of eight obviously is the most powerful change that you can make. And one of those levers is decision making, which I call the stealth lever, because decision making is invisible in an organization. But when you change, it has a very powerful impact. I think the only way you can work with it and change it is first by having a language to describe it. Which takes us back to our Racey topic. You can’t have a very successful conversation about decision making without breaking down some kind of system that helps you with rolls.

The other thing that I see very often is not that no one knows where the decision is made, but that it’s made in too many places. So the Project Management Institute and their reseat work say that best practices having only one A for every task or every activity, and that is definitely best practice. That means that you can streamline your work. You’re clear about where the decisions are made. No second guessing. It’s also extremely rare in most complex organizations.

There is definitely more than one A including going up the chain to the highest paid person in the room, and that slows things down tremendously. So one of the things we try to clean up in a research project is challenging people to give up the aid and demote themselves, if you will, to the sea. So your advice and your expertise is very important. We want to hear it, but then we’ll go our own way. We may not always do it just as you recommend.

That’s interesting.

I would guess if you’ve got one particular employee reporting to a department manager, a geographic manager, a project manager, and the AI is really unclear and then it just becomes difficult to really delegate anything. I was thinking about it more coming from that angle. If there isn’t really like a one to one relationship between the employee and a particular person who’s being held accountable, then that it just becomes really very much. This is exactly right, Luke.

This is the dilemma of horizontal work, because as soon as you put that cross-functional team together, everyone on it has a different boss. Hmm. It often feels like these project teams are volunteering their time to the horizontal work. And if you have to choose between delivering something for your boss or delivering something for your team, in many companies, it’s really obvious that the right answer is to deliver for your boss. No, because that’s where your performance is evaluated.

That’s where your career is developed. And we create these shadow horizontal teams that we expect to just work without any authority or any performance evaluation or any credit for the work that’s done on them. It’s interesting because if you go up maybe to the twenty thousand foot level, there’s a lot of writing right now about the change from the command and control organization that really produced the industrial era to a flatter organization that’s more horizontal. But when people experience that change, they often come to me and say, I’m responsible for all these things.

I just don’t have any authority to do them. And that’s a problem. That’s. Driving me crazy and I don’t want to be slapped, so I don’t say you’re trying to move from the command and control vertical way of working into the horizontal lateral way of working. And guess what? It’s harder. And guess what? You don’t have the right skills because the horizontal landscape requires a totally different set of skills.

One of the things I really liked and in a previous webinar that I watched, it was so that all of the senior teams are, by definition, cross-functional. If we’re trying to get the teams to be more involved, we want them to have this big picture view to see how what they do fits in with the big picture. Or is that not really that necessary in your view?

That brings two things to mind. The first is the senior team aligned on strategy. And can they then communicate that strategy or that vision for where the company is going to everyone else in the company? I think getting senior teams aligned on strategy is my favorite kind of work and not necessarily easy to do when you think about a senior team being cross-functional. They each have an area that they are responsible for. So the CFO is responsible for everything that’s going on financially.

The marketing chief marketing officer is responsible for the marketing for the company. What’s the task that they’re jointly responsible for? And it’s a joint task that actually defines what makes a team. If you don’t have a joint task, you probably aren’t a team. They’re joint task is creating strategy they have to think about. What kind of marketing should we have, even if I’m not the chief marketing officer? They have to think about what my portfolio of businesses, even if I’m not the CEO.

It’s true that there are cross-functional team that sometimes behave like a working group instead of a team. If you get them aligned on strategy, that’s very powerful for everyone else in the organization, then you can unleash that vision and other people can find their place in it. And all those other cross-functional teams are now executing something that fulfills that vision if you do have crosstalk at a senior level.

But what’s your typical approach to help companies both on senior teams and on the other people in the organization?

One thing I often point out to them is an inch of misalignment at the top feels like a mile down below. So if the cross-functional teams in the middle of the organization are stuck, it’s often because the people at the top haven’t wrestled their own roles and their own agreements and disagreements to the ground. And everyone goes back home to their department and they hear a different version of the vision and the strategy, and then they come back again to their cross-functional tree team and try to hash it out at that level.

And they they get stuck there. We do a lot of idealise design, which I think is morphed in the world today into design thinking, but. Such a disruptive environment with. Digital transformation at hand coming very quickly with all the changes in the social fabric, so you really need people to look ahead and think creatively about what the future holds and then use those conversations to come up with a strategy that’s, I think, agile. You know, it’s you look for the things that, you know, are robust in the words of a former mentor of mine.

No matter what happens three years from now, we know in the next one year that this is the right thing for us to do. And you have to keep checking in on your strategy because the world is changing very quickly.

That kind of agility really emphasizes the need for this role clarity that we started talking about. If you think about think about the difference between a job description and a chart, job descriptions are pretty durable. They are written so that they don’t have to be rewritten very often. Often they have a legal aspect to them. So they have to be written in a very broad way that that wonderful line at the bottom of a job description says other duties as assigned.

Almost all of the cross-functional project work that is one of those duties falls into that one line at the bottom.

Right. This is your job. And oh, by the way, 50 percent of your time is going to be spent working on cross-functional project teams that we didn’t actually put in your job description. So Arashi is designed to be the opposite of that. Very flexible, very in the moment, almost in the conversation here, a team is what we have to do for the next two weeks. Who’s taking which piece of this? Where are the hours? I cannot take all of them and want them distributed.

You go talk to these stakeholders. You go talk to these stakeholders. We know where the A decision is and we’ll check back in on that assignment two weeks from now. And it may change. How did you find that episode? Feel free to reach out to me and drop a line on Twitter from my end. I found this episode to be really useful. It really got into the details of race. And I think I admittedly didn’t maybe appreciate the power of this tool.

One thing that it clearly helps address is this clarifying of who’s responsible for each decision. And I know this is a major challenge and teams working in a larger organizational context within a team, it’s usually pretty obvious. I think it’s the cross team collaboration where it does become a little more complicated. So tune in next week for a follow up episode with Cassie. And remember to go to write this podcast dot com slash online remotely and leave your thoughts.

Thanks for listening to this episode of The Blind Remotely podcast, if you enjoy the show, please leave a review on iTunes, Google podcast or wherever you get your podcast.

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