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Job function trading cards

by Andrew Taylor

Because I direct an MBA program in Arts Administration and also talk and work with arts organizations of all shapes and sizes, I'm continually intrigued by the disconnect between standards of practice and the real lives of small and midsize arts groups. So much of our received wisdom and business theory regarding how to run an arts organization comes from very large companies in dense urban areas. These companies have procedures and policies, they have human resources departments and division heads, they manage in a world of relatively large numbers (budgets, personnel, scale of production).

But small to midsize arts organizations aren't just small versions of large organizations. They are different creatures. And so much of what we think and teach about running an organization seems an awkward fit for the way they actually work.

Case in point: Job descriptions. Basic standards of management tell us that every job in an organization should have a detailed description, with key functions, skill requirements, and evaluation criteria included. And because large companies write all-inclusive job descriptions for every job, we figure that should work for everyone. When we post a job search, we have a single job description in hand that includes all aspects of the job. When we apply for a job, we get that job description and try to fit its requirements.

But in a small organization, that's not how the world actually works. There is work to be done, of course. And that work can be described in functions and core skills and evaluation criteria. But in a staff of three or five or 10, the person actually fulfilling that function may not be (and sometimes should not be) the one who's assigned to it. Or, a function may flow from one team member to another as time and attention and interest and skill require.

Another standard concept of management is that the job description and the person are two different things. The job description is a strategic document that describes a bundle of tasks in relation to other bundles of tasks, and defines the reporting relationships. The person is hired to fit the job described...the entire job.

Again, in a small organization, this is complete fiction. People will grow and flow into different strengths and capacities. Some will burn out on certain functions given their stress or complexity or repetition. The true shape of work in a small organization is much more blob than defined and persistent job.

So, why not rethink the problem?

What if, instead of a cluster of monolithic job descriptions, we had 'job function trading cards'? Every necessary function or task or outcome of an organization would have a card with the function description on the front, and the indicators of success on the back. And instead of a single job description, everyone on the team would have a bundle of cards. They would have a 'hand' to play in the life of the organization.

When someone left a company, their bundle of cards would be placed on the table, and leadership and staff would have an opportunity to reshuffle -- assigning some cards to current staff, and allowing current staff to request one, returning some other function card to the pile. Then the hiring process would focus on the best person for the majority of the functions left to be done (yes, this game would need some significant rules, but ignore that challenge for now).

Further, staff could actually trade these cards among themselves. If you had the 'partnering/programming with public schools' card and I had the 'sustain/increase return purchase among our ticket buyers' card, we could agree to a swap, and propose it to the full team. Of course, a requirement of the trade would be that each individual meet or exceed the performance standards of the one they traded with.

You could argue that this already happens, without cards. Small teams are constantly shifting their tasks and functions since there aren't nearly enough of them to get things done otherwise. But when this happens, it often happens badly. Not everyone knows what bundle of functions of jobs they own, or their colleagues own. And often individuals will hold more functions than the constraints of time and sanity will allow. Hence the cards. Real cards. If you hold the card, you own what's on it, and you're accountable for how well it gets done.

If you've ever tried to write, evaluate, or enforce a job description at a small or midsize organization, you know what an odd bit of fantasy theater it can be. Boards and managers I've talked with are continually frustrated about it. So let's change the game. Job Function Trading Cards is my suggestion.

What's yours?