It’s often said that highly functioning teams have clear definitions of roles and responsibilities. I would agree that responsibilities must be clearly defined, but I argue that roles are much hazier. A role is rarely described by a job title – positions like Project Manager or Product Manager might comprise any number of functions, depending on the company, team, and most importantly, the individual, but it doesn’t describe the role. It doesn’t matter who is actually doing what – it just matters that it gets done and everyone knows who’s doing it. The real meaning and importance of roles is harder to pinpoint.
Teams and projects develop over time. With time, there is a storyline. Any good story needs strongly developed characters, or roles. Some of the archetypal characters include the one who instigates action, the one who gives comfort, the one who doubts, the voice of reason, the fool and the village idiot (sometimes confused, but quite different roles). There’s often a cameo appearance by someone who imparts wisdom at a key moment – an angel or fairy godmother or wise old man, and of course there’s usually someone who provides comic relief.
A dynamic, well-functioning team includes people who play the right roles to develop a good story. Chemistry is important and elusive, but crucial to keep the narrative flowing. Without responsibilities, a project can’t move forward. But without roles, a team falls flat.
People usually fall into their roles naturally, and those roles are understood at a subconscious level. That’s normal and ideal. But sometimes, particularly when team members feel shy or insecure or have been warned to be on their best behavior, natural personalities are stifled. This is when a dynamic leader can make all the difference. The primary responsibility of a leader (or sometimes a sub-leader) is to set the tone, put everyone at ease, and allow their natural personalities to emerge.
Personalities shouldn’t be allowed to run wild. We live in a civilized society (for the most part), and implicit rules of decorum must be obeyed. But within the flexible confines of public politeness, people should feel comfortable slipping into their natural roles. When people are allowed to be themselves, they are more predictable and reliable. This removes anxiety and uncertainty, and allows teams to work smoothly and have fun with each other.