The Semco Style 5 Principles to transform the way we work

Defining Roles And Responsibilities

Everyone Shouldn’t Be Responsible For Everything

People are too keen to follow standard preconceptions of how organisations should work. All too often, we feel that we are unable to make changes and so hope that someone, somewhere in your organisation knows what we are doing and what the overall aim is. – Ricardo Semler

In a Nutshell

Teams and the way they operate have always been of great interest to people as well as organizations geared towards success. When it comes to teams, what’s better? Extreme alignment among team members about the way in which they want to achieve a project’s end goal? Or, is it more important for team members to know exactly what their roles and responsibilities are?

In many organizations, especially startups, employees wear multiple hats and work on tasks that are technically not within the purview of their role. While this may create the semblance of a busy workspace, the undercurrent is usually one of confusion. When people are told how to reach a target, but not given specific or clear cut roles to play, then it leads to people stepping on each other’s toes in the name of collaboration.

It’s the job of the leader to make sure that their team members are in no doubt about their roles and responsibilities with respect to a certain project. Collaboration becomes more effective when people understand the boundaries within which they can operate, and complete significant chunks of their responsibilities independently.

Before overhauling the existing definition of roles and responsibilities, conduct an analysis to bring up any gaps, struggles and ambiguity in performing said roles. To do that, the team needs to touch base with its main purpose and see if the roles and activities, currently in place, are conducive to achieving those goals.  


Identify existing roles and responsibilities in the organization and agree as a team on who does what. It’s also an opportunity to identify gaps and struggles to meet the organization’s short term and long term goals.


When you’re in the thick of things, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of assigning everything to everyone. In the end, no one is truly responsible for anything. This is not to say that employees must operate in a bubble, doing what it takes to achieve an extremely well-defined target without any collaboration. On the contrary, there’s no denying that any role we perform involves, and is connected to, several people and stakeholders. Or, some roles may need to be delivered in phases and depend upon the contribution of multiple people.

The point here is to try and identify a single person who is finally responsible for performing a role, while also identifying those who offer support. And, to avoid the sentimental lack of ownership as well. When people aren’t in any doubt about their roles and responsibilities and the whole team agrees with the way they’ve been defined, it creates a baseline from where any tensions around ownership can be dealt with in the future.

It’s also a great tool for newcomers to identify key people related to each role.


Put Your Heads Together: Find a time and space for the entire team to collectively brainstorm about all the roles they identify themselves performing within their specific field of work. Come up with a list of additional roles and responsibilities that need to be developed in order to achieve goals. It’s important to keep in mind the “WHAT” of your organization while you do this exercise.

Co-Map The Roles And Responsibilities: A self-elected person should take up the job of organizing these roles, eliminating doubling, and aligning the language used to define the roles. The roles need to be classified under segments that make sense to the team and creates clarity about the key activities involved.

Three Key Tasks And No More: Once all the roles have been mapped, then the purpose behind each role should be defined so that team members can truly grasp what a specific role involves. Do this by coming up with three key tasks for every role and no more. Otherwise, it will become a huge and impractical document to read through. So, it’s crucial to stick to what’s essential, and explain each task as briefly as possible.

Get Everyone On Board: Once people have had the chance to individually indicate their ownership of roles and have described them from their perspective, the team should take a moment to go through the document, role by role, aligning all the elements. The most important element is the level of responsibility, and everyone needs to agree upon who should be the person responsible for a role and who should provide support.

Make It Safe To Switch Roles: Use this as an opportunity to re-distribute roles, creating a safe space for people to not just seek additional roles and supportive responsibilities, but to also say that they don’t feel comfortable doing a certain role and they’d like to switch to something else.  

Make It a live document: This document should be revisited anytime a role evolves or someone changes their role in order to keep it updated for everyone.


When (NOT) to use it

We recommend revisiting the roles and responsibilities document as and when tensions over roles and ownership occur. In other words, use an ad hoc approach and revisit just the roles that are in concern. Overall, we recommend doing a complete review once in three to six months, to validate and redefine what has been agreed upon so far by the whole team.

Level to implement



Involve the entire team

Co-create document on roles and responsibilities

Make it safe for team members to switch roles


Forget the WHAT of your organization

Come up with too many key tasks and metrics with lengthy descriptions

Assign too many roles to one person


Bolsters clarity about roles, responsibilities and ownership

Helps adapt better to future needs of company

Increases trust, transparency and stakeholder alignment



Needs time for people to settle into redefined roles

People might mistake clear roles definition with silos and non-collaborative team


Reprioritize. Redefine. Repeat.

This summer, I spent an entire month interacting with our team in Amsterdam through a range of activities and exercises. The idea was to take a step back and do a deep internal alignment. One of the major outcomes of this trip was a redefinition of our team’s roles and responsibilities.

Culling out time to revisit our roles and responsibilities was very relevant to us as a startup because we all have so many things on the plate. Multiple initiatives and ideas run parallelly and spending time as a team to re-prioritize and redefine things internally was just what the doctor ordered.

The idea was to take a deep-dive look into the various roles we currently perform within the organization and to also come up with a set of roles that we wanted to perform in the future. All discussions were done keeping in mind the overall vision we had as a company and what we wanted to accomplish together.

In other words, the ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ of our organization. All that talk about where our ambitions lay, helped us understand not only what we were currently doing, but also what we needed to do tomorrow.

We held a collective brainstorming session and came up with every role and responsibility our organization needs to have in place and by the end of the exercise, we had about 100 such roles and responsibilities. A person, who was self-elected, took notes during the discussion and came up with a Google Spreadsheets document that compiled

  • all the roles and responsibilities
  • brief description of the purpose and what was the role
  • metrics used to measure performance
  • name of the person responsible for each role
  • and, the name(s) of the person(s) who offered support.

While it’s important to reflect upon the metrics used to measure how well a role was delivered, it’s crucial to assign a single person to each role. The reason behind such emphasis is that it’s quite common to find people doing a lot more than what their original job description entailed. And, the end result is a lack of clarity on who does what and the potential for burnout.

Since any kind of role involves interaction with multiple stakeholders, it might seem counterintuitive to assign a single person to a role. However, doing so helps people better understand what exactly is expected from them and who are the people they can hope to receive support from. Of course, there will be certain roles like sales, where the responsibility is to sell programs, and there’s more than one person doing the job. In such cases, your document can specify more than one name.

But it all comes down to the way your company wants to organize: If you want to be more modular and you have more than one person catering to a role, then consider separating them into two distinct roles. For instance, if Maria is responsible for selling essential programs and Jose is responsible for selling master class programs, then you can split them into two distinct roles. Most of the roles in our Google sheet are single person names, with a few having two-three names.

This is a very challenging exercise and sometimes in the first version of the exercise, you might see more than one name in multiple fields. But as your team members get more comfortable with being accountable and taking ownership, with greater clarity on roles and responsibilities, it becomes easier to identify single points of contact for each of the roles being performed. And of course, you can always tweak the column that mentions names of people offering support to reflect those who are relevant to the current projects at hand.

Another important element to this exercise is the estimation of how many hours per week a role demands from a team member. The exercise can be of great value, depending on the size of your organization and the extent to which you want to manage your resources. Doing this exercise makes it easy to understand the struggles involved, the availability of a person and the amount of time they put into performing their role.

For instance, a person works full time (40 hours/ week) but you see their name under a range of roles. Each of those roles is estimated to take two hours to perform. You then begin seeing that this person, who should be working 40 hours per week, is actually working (in theory) more than 100 hours.

Of course, nobody is going to work those many hours a week, but it’s a clear indicator that this person is overworked and is doing much more than what they signed up for. Trying to understand the time portion of the equation is a good exercise that helps you identify points of overwhelm which you can try and avoid when you see someone accumulating a crazy number of hours.

We didn’t do this exercise because it wasn’t necessary for us as a startup, with a small-size team. Identifying the time it takes to perform various roles is quite a lot of work and when you’re in a small team, you can informally identify who’s putting in more hours and is close to feeling overwhelmed. That’s the reason why we didn’t do it,

Now that we’ve done this exercise once, I believe discussions around job rotation and career evolution will flow much easier in the future. That’s because we now have greater clarity on what roles exist within the organization, who does what, and if anything needs to be changed, I’m confident that it will be done in a smooth way.

Revisiting roles and responsibilities is essential if you want to do away with the sentimental lack of ownership that prevails in many organizations. Besides, once everyone is onboard, it creates a baseline from where you can tackle any tensions that crop up around ownership.

The exercise is all the more crucial because it prevents employees from getting lost in their daily routines and stepping into the autopilot mode. Otherwise people will perform their roles just to survive and that’s the death of creativity, innovation and growth. So, while it’s important to operate the business, it’s essential for each person involved to understand exactly what their contribution towards the company’s success is.


Expert avatar

Borges, Ian

Co-founder at LeadWise | Partner at Semco Style Institute | Entrepreneur | Lifestyle Strategist | Digital Nomad

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Portuguese, English, French, Spanish

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