Resolving limbo — a roles and responsibilities workshop

Many teams run into that there are unclear expectations for what role is responsible for what within a team. There may be many reasons for this such as: it has never been discussed, new responsibilities have been added or new team members.

I have had the opportunity to facilitate a couple of workshops for figuring out roles and responsibilities for teams over the years. In these, we try to figure out what responsibilities belong to what role within the team.

I have tried multiple formats over the years that have worked well. However, the most recent one is a new format that I designed building on previous formats and experiences. I tried it out with a team within Visiba Care and I really liked the format and the results of it so I thought I’d share it.

The format

The main goal of the workshop format is to figure out WHERE responsibilities should reside, not HOW they should be carried out. This is crucial for this format, otherwise you will end up discussing the how and not the where. I suggest moving the how discussions to a follow up step if you need to resolve this. As always in my opinion — a workshop is best conducted with all participants in the same room, but conducting it remotely should also be very doable.

Preparations
The first step is to map the roles within the team. An example of the roles within a team are: developer, QA-engineer, product manager, scrum master and UX-designer. The roles may consist of only one person, but also multiple people (such as the role “Developer” in the above example).

When you have mapped out the roles within the team, it’s time to create your workshop board. This can be a physical whiteboard with sticky notes or an electronic one such as Mural or Miro. Create a field for each of the roles mapped out and add two fields: “Team” and “Limbo”.

The field “Team” is for when this is a joint team responsibility and Limbo is used for responsibilities that are unclear or not handled within the team.

A suggestion is also to add a “Parking” field on the board, to park sticky notes that you cannot agree upon or take up too much time in the discussions.

The workshop board can look something like this (mid workshop):

An illustration showing the intended board structure.
Workshop board (mid workshop)

Now it’s time to invite the team to the workshop!

Steps within the workshop
This format consists of five parts done after each other:

  • Idea generation of responsibilities
  • Map responsibilities to the current situation
  • Mark responsibilities to change
  • Resolve marked responsibilities
  • Assign responsibilities in “Limbo”

Idea generation of responsibilities
After the introduction in the workshop, it is time to generate ideas of responsibilities. Give the team a couple of minutes to write down responsibilities and set them on a common area of the workshop board (i.e. not on the field of the role they reside).

Some examples from a previous sessions are: “Prioritizes backlog”, “Facilitates daily standup”, “Support in sales meetings”, “Regression testing”, “Facilitates bug triage”.

My experience is that it’s usually better to instruct the participants to put up the notes as soon as they are written, in this way other participants can be inspired by them and come up with even more ideas. Another way to get participants ideas flowing is to prepare a couple of notes beforehand that put them up in the common area.

Map responsibilities to the current situation
Together the team goes through all the notes on the board and clarifies the meaning (if they are unclear) as well as removing duplicates. It can be done in the group as a whole, a subset of the group or by the help of the facilitator.

Next step is to agree within the team and move all the notes one by one to the role they belong to today. As above it can be a representative or the facilitator with the input from the group moving through each of the notes. If there are uncertainties on a note, move it to the “Limbo” field. And remember that the point of this step is not to figure where it should be, only where it actually is today.

Mark responsibilities to change
Everyone in the team now gets to go through the board and set a marking or dot on each note that they feel is in the “wrong” place. This is not dot voting and everyone has as many dots as they like. So, if a note already has a dot on it no further dots need to be added. Do not go through the notes in the “Limbo” field as they are a next step (and obviously in the wrong place).

Resolve marked responsibilities
Now, go through each of the marked notes, one by one, and in the whole group discuss where they should reside. If it results in discussions the team cannot quickly agree upon, do not hesitate to use the parking spot and return to that note later.

Assign responsibilities in “Limbo”
Next, and the last step of the workshop is to go through the responsibilities that reside in the limbo column. As with the marked notes, go through the notes one by one and move them to the agreed upon role. And again, don’t hesitate to use the parking square.

A whiteboard with sticky notes — mid workshop
Actual image from the workshop format

Summarization and next steps
Make sure to return to notes in the parking space and resolve them if possible. If the team cannot agree, save them for a later discussion and try to resolve it there.

After this you should have a clear picture and understanding within the team what role is responsible for what. However, this will most likely spawn new discussions more related to how these responsibilities should be handled. Some because it was new responsibilities and some when responsibilities were assigned to a role consisting of multiple people.

An idea on how to clarify the how for each role came from the Visiba team using this format. The suggestion was that each of the roles will sit together (or by themselves) and come up with a suggestion on how. When they each have a plan, the team gets together and presents this to each other and come to an agreement based on the suggestions for each role.

I hope this can be a useful and fun workshop format to use and I hope it can help you iron out where the responsibilities of your team should reside. Also, feel free to modify any part of this format to fit your needs.

Happy workshopping!

Jonas Carlsson
Agile coach at Visiba Care

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