Actors and Roles

For some time I’ve been thinking that while the ideas behind top-down analysis or functional decomposition are useful, our model may be untrue. It is quite compelling to believe that the atomic functions in a complex system build up to form compounds and crystal structures and rock formations naturally but what if it is all a sea of atoms and we are seeing faces in the breaking waves? Our over-active brains, so keen to classify and pattern match, could be deceiving us.

The first person I ever heard express a similar view was a trainer explaining the PMBOK, the ‘Program Management Body of Knowledge’. He explained the lowest level of the standard then asked us, in two teams, to guess how related functions were split into named sets. We came up with completely different answers. “That’s right” he said. The groupings were arbitrary: notice some similarities, think of a name, find more functions that fit that description or change it, repeat.

The ‘application landscape’ of an ‘organisation’ (another constructed hierarchy) is a sub-network of the organisation’s business processes. We could draw a huge network of tiny processes, connected by message flows but we prefer to simplify beyond necessity and discuss systems and sub-systems, products and services. If we found a competitor to be out-marketing us, we’d cut it a different way; or we’d restructure departments to show how much we’d changed.

Today I was discussing how the job of Project Manager might be split into its constituent roles. Mapping roles is something I’ve thought about many times before. Today, I suddenly saw for the first time that ‘role’ is only the name we give to a set of functions that we consider to be related in some way.

I realised when I asked “Can you write user-stories for roles/’actors’?”, thinking of using a conventional format for Agile user-stories and saw that you could:
“As a [role], I [do a type of thing] so that [the business value it provides]”
The things you do define the role, not the other way around.
If a role is nothing more than a named set of functions, and standard job titles are just a design pattern for a typical set of functions then everything is mutable.
Similarly, if your organisation is performing the wrong set of low level functions, no amount of departmental deckchair shuffling is going to help.

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