When talking about job titles, we often dismiss them as insignificant. A title feels clunky, corporate-ish and the only useful application that comes to mind, is to make our job specs more search compatible. 

But we can also look at them from a different angle; embrace them, make them building blocks of our organisational designs, and use them to drive team autonomy and distributed decision-making.

So how do we do this? I’ll explain..

What is a title?

A title is a code that summarises several different attributes of a specific role into a label. The label can include a modifier to allow for vertical gradations or general specification. 

Take ‘Senior Software Engineer’ as an example. ‘Software Engineer’ is the label describing what the role requires, while the modifier ‘Senior’ specifies the experience level. 

Titles point to a mental model, activating a broad range of assumed role requirements and expectations about the person holding that title. Thus, a title is first and foremost a communication tool. It is used to express and transport expectations towards the person holding a specific title. This is not a one-way street, however: Working as a Principal Engineer, for example, the inbound expectation towards you would be to own a system and drive its further development in alignment with the overall tech and company strategy in a fully independent manner. At the same time, you’d expect your organisation to provide you with the necessary resources to fulfil that purpose.

A title acts as a contract between the person filling a role and the surrounding organisation. This contract sets the boundaries of ownership. By clearly defining inward and outward expectations towards the title-holder, an aligned scope of action is created, making it easier for everyone to navigate decision-making. 

Understanding titles as a means of communication is compelling if the same mechanics are applied on a company-wide level. It will bridge departments, tear silos down, and enhance the organisation’s communication flows, hierarchies and structures. If a ‘Junior’, a ‘Senior’ and a ‘Head of’, have aligned scopes throughout all departments, people will know what to expect from one another.

Personal growth and career progression are other dimensions to also consider. Titles, and particularly their modifiers, help employees understand their placement within the organisation. From there, they can easily see potential next moves – internally or externally. Titles can further aid self-reflection – through comparison  with others in similar roles – to identify growth opportunities. 

As titles confer ownership of a particular system or subsystem within clearly defined boundaries and constraints, they therefore allow a person to also operate with autonomy. 

Embracing titles for organisational design

Linking titles to role descriptions, unambiguously assigning them, and communicating them throughout all departments makes titles a fantastic tool for designing an organisation.

Autonomous decision-making

As more and more companies turn toward distributed and independent decision-making as a critical driver for organisational success and employee happiness, the need for well-shaped organisational structure increases. The basis for success is a clear strategy that cascades through the company and acts as a guiding principle. This needs to be paired with a communication and collaboration scheme that enables a meaningful flow of information and limits teams’ dependencies.

A system of clearly aligned titles and their requisite role descriptions play a part in this scheme. Not just the role description, but already the title needs to clearly indicate which decisions can be taken by the person holding the title – and which can’t. By ensuring this, overlapping responsibilities, as well as overall diffusion of responsibilities, can be avoided. Allowing for title ambiguity will lead to conflicting actions and frustration within teams.

To illustrate this, imagine a situation in which backend engineers within a product team start using an experimental datastore that is missing data protection requirements as defined by platform engineers. Clearly encoding that a “Senior Platform Engineer” should make those decisions would avoid such a misstep and clarify the situation, leaving no doubt who needs to be involved in the process. 

Building blocks

A system of clear, cohesive, non-overlapping titles and role definitions is an organisational designer’s blueprint – anyone setting up teams will need this. It will enable you to combine and stack different roles together in a way that models the flow of organisational decision-making. Vertical modifiers can then be used for detailed adjustments.

This blueprint is not static and will have to be adapted continuously to match new learnings and internal and external changes. Examples of events that will force such a review are role changes, promotions, strategic changes or updated market conditions – or simply growth. 

This system’s versatility is its core strength, but be aware: As it lies in human nature, change can easily cause discomfort. Explaining exactly what triggers an adaption to your organisational structure and what it means for individuals involved will make those transformations easier.

Requirements, expectations and responsibilities at scale

Another handy tool when using streamlined titles and roles is managing requirements and expectations at scale. Once deployed across an organisation, titles and roles can be kept and updated collaboratively in a central place. To allow for easy adoption, use the tools already available to your team. With GitHub and Gitlab, you get review and participation processes built-in, yet any other tool that allows for transparent collaboration and is easily accessible will do the trick.

Job specs

Unfortunately, many job specs show a remarkable discrepancy between what they sell potential candidates and the reality of a job. This leads to enormous frustration for applicants and often the decision to apply for a particular job is based on whose job description looks the most accurate.

This discrepancy between expectation and reality is already created with the title. Choosing the most SEO-compatible title versus the title that best describes the exact role may initially gain your ad more visibility. On the downside, it may lead to someone coming into the hiring process or even start a job with unreasonable expectations. 

Remember: Titles invoke mental models.

Salary bands

Far too often, a person’s monthly take-home depends more on their negotiation skills than on their actual capabilities. Within a system of clearly defined and aligned titles, fair and balanced salary bands become possible. It enables the transparent combination of salaries with an individual title and its modifiers. Predictable wages, combined with a clear structure of titles, allow everyone in a department to understand and foresee what growing within a role can lead to financially.

Career progression

Last but not least, well-declared title definitions act as a tool for career-planning. The difference of what is expected from having a particular title can drive a conversation around achievements, promotions and learning opportunities. By basing the discussion on shared title definitions, a fair and equal progression process can be achieved, and personal biases are limited. 

Pitfalls

When implementing coherent title definitions across a company, several pitfalls can occur. Some common examples can be found below:

Not being aligned across the organisation

A clear definition of titles serves to align mental models of what a title entails within a group of people. When different departments within the same company use varying title definitions, most positive outcomes can get lost. Communication can worsen as the same titles mean other things, leading to a mixed understanding of expectations, requirements and responsibilities by each involved party, without them realising. 

Another pitfall to watch out for, in the same vein, are similar titles implemented differently in different departments. While a degree of  flexibility is common to allow for individual requirements of each department, taking this too far can lead to a hard-to-fix imbalance. Consider the case of two ‘Head Ofs’, one leading an entire team of 30, including team leads, and the other having a team of two individual contributors. 

Titles as a (signup) bonus

But Thomas will only join if he’s a Senior here.” or “Hannah is a bit disengaged these days, let’s promote her to Senior to avoid her leaving the company.” We have probably all been there at some point. Title and role changes should always be done within a shared framework of expectations and achievements. As soon as titles are handed out as a bonus or as consolation, inequality is created without the required personal growth, and the overall system loses a significant amount of meaning.

Not being aligned with the market

It is useful to keep the combination of a title, and its related expectations, requirements, and responsibilities aligned with the market. Individual deviations are standard, but taking it too far can seriously damage your employees’ ability to further progress in their careers. To stick with the example above, consider the case of a ‘Head Of’ title given to someone outside a typical career progression. This person may have a tough time finding their next job – they may not be experienced enough to fill an ‘average’ ‘Head Of’ position while downgrading to just a ‘Senior’ may be equally challenging.

Deployed in a structured and thoughtful way, titles introduce a new communication layer into our companies. For this to work well, we need to develop and manage them in a central but collaborative way.

Titles work best if they are deployed throughout the organisation and allow minimal deviations. To get started and experiment with a set of titles, a small experimental scope can be useful so why not start in the engineering department and adequately define a ‘Senior Software Engineer’?

When we begin to see titles as fundamental building blocks of our companies, we  open our doors to an entirely new perspective on organisational design.

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