Defining roles and responsibilities

Nov 01, 2021

Knowing who does what, who needs to weigh in, and who makes the final decision is critical to success.

The big day arrives. After months of courting, the firm landed a major project for a client it had wanted for years. The firm’s leadership and project team gathered in a conference room to celebrate. Champagne flowed and smiles filled the room as the CEO expressed his excitement about winning the client. Glasses were raised and the work began.

The problem project. A few days later, the principal- in-charge met with the client to finalize the project vision. The CEO did not attend. Nevertheless, he planned to watch over matters related to the new client, a plan he didn’t share with others. After the meeting, the principal-in-charge handed off the work to his lead designer, asking her to keep him informed. He then moved on to the next project.

Things went smoothly until reality intervened. The client demanded high touch service and multiple project changes despite having agreed to a fixed fee contract. To please the client, the lead designer complied with their requests, although she was nervous about their impact on the project scope and vision. She voiced her concerns with the principal-in-charge, who replied he had no time to deal with them and to “just make it work.”

She thought about talking with the CEO, having heard his enthusiasm about the client at the firm celebration, but didn’t want to go over her supervisor’s head.

The client refused to reconsider any of their change requests. The lead designer concluded her best option was to focus on her team delivering great design and submitting their billable hours on time.

That approach seemed to work until the day the project accountant decided to take a deep dive into the contract to compare the billed hours to the project scope. Two-thirds of the way into the project, they had exceeded their fee.

Questions abounded:

  • Who held the final approval on changes to the project vision and scope?
  • Whose job was it to track the work against the contract?
  • Who should have been talking with the client about scope creep?
  • If the client refused to enlarge the contractual scope, who would manage the deficit?

Everybody talked, few listened, and no one took charge of protecting the firm’s economics or client relationship.

The problem process. Regrettably, this is not a new problem in the business world. It points to the common issue of ill-defined roles and responsibilities. Whether it is a matter of company governance or project management, knowing who does what, who needs to weigh in, and who makes the final decision is critical to success. When roles and responsibilities are known, people direct their energy toward producing good work rather than arguing over who was supposed to do what. The cost of such arguments is lost revenue, frustrated staff, and unhappy clients.

Five process stumbling blocks and stepping over them. Despite the benefits of defining roles and responsibilities, few companies spend time establishing them. Why is that? Here are five reasons and ways to overcome them:

  1. Defining roles and responsibilities is hard, time consuming, and boring. Defining roles and responsibilities involves investing time in the grinding process of identifying the functions, expertise, and decision makers needed to succeed. Thinking through all the moving parts of a project is a project in itself. However, without doing so, important actions can be missed.
    In the case above, knowing who held responsibility for tracking the budget against the contractual scope of work and who owned the project vision would have helped the lead designer avoid the budget overrun.
    For many, generating a list of functions is boring. To launch a roles and responsibilities process, task someone who thrives on details to create an initial list for others to vet. After all, it is easier to criticize than create. Then, organize a group of project stakeholders to decide who owns the delivery of each function, who should be consulted and who needs to approve it. This part of the process is not boring, because it sheds light on unspoken assumptions that might not be universally accepted. A healthy debate maximizes the chances of a group approved roadmap.
  2. Assigning decision making surfaces power issues. The process of establishing roles and responsibilities surfaces issues many want to avoid. When a person has the power to decide something, others must defer to their decisions. That’s OK unless someone doesn’t want to cede the territory. For example, a principal-in-charge might want to set the project fee and any adjustments to it. However, the CEO will want to override any decision that has a negative impact on the company budget. Giving ultimate authority to the CEO makes sense for corporate governance but the principal-in- charge might oppose that position, especially if they brought in the business. Resolving the issue requires one or more uncomfortable and necessary conversations.
  3. Assigning roles can challenge professional identity. Assigning responsibility for a function could displace a person who thought they not only owned but identified with it. A project architect might believe they should determine the final finishes because of their well-honed artistic eye. The principal-in charge might disagree because the client expects the project’s senior leader to make the final call. If the firm goes with the client expectation, it should remember to avoid demotivating the project architect by reinforcing how much the firm values their work and explaining that the decision was based on the client relationship, not the architect’s talent.
  4. Leading must come from the top. Establishing roles and responsibilities is not an exercise in task assignment, but rather an important driver of talent, efficiency, and good governance. In short, it’s a strategic activity that senior leaders must endorse and take seriously.
    Brokering these decisions demands an investment of time, honesty, and conversations that focus objectively on what is best for the business. Is it better for an architect who has project familiarity to analyze a contract to manage its scope or an accountant with expertise in contract review? Waiting for a traveling executive to return to the office to evaluate tile and countertops does not advance the bottom line or organizational health unless the executive has a magic touch for choosing winning colors and materials, or the client orders it.
  5. Having a process means enforcing it. The act of deciding upon the process provides empowering clarity. However, once a company defines a roles and responsibilities roadmap, it must enforce it. As no one memorizes decision-making matrices or knows what to do with issues not covered by the process, someone must assume the role of traffic cop to remind others of the agreements and create new ones as needed. The roles and responsibilities process should include designation of that person.

Establishing a roles and responsibilities roadmap is worth the time and aggravation of getting there. It might feel like an “eat your vegetables because they’re good for you” idea, but a healthy diet does make a difference.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business and then moved on to her current life of coaching, teaching and consulting with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the scariness of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is author of the award-winning The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. Her workbook, The Journal of Not Knowing, provides a self- guided discovery mission to navigate the bumpy road of the unknown toward achieving better things. She can be reached at

About Zweig Group

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