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Even more on No Job Titles

Quite a bit back, I wrote on the subject of “No Job Titles.” The subject has come up again within Adaptive Path, as Todd’s post shows. There’s also been discussion on internal mailing lists, which prompted me to write the following:

I hate job titles.

I wish we could no longer have them for two reasons:

1) People get their identities so wrapped up in their job titles. There’s a reason “creative director” is banned from Adaptive Path. As I wrote in that long interview/discussion with GK van Patter:

“The moment we attach our identity to a label (“designer,” “information architect,” “engineer,” “New Yorker,” “San Franciscan,” “Catholic,” “Jew”) we lose perspective.”

2) Job titles suggest to clients and other external people that we are like other companies.
Adaptive Path succeeds best when we act in ways that are *not* typical for a company, particularly a services firm. Job titles is Playing the Game, and it allows a client to assume we are like our “competitors” because we have titles like they do. If we go into a meeting with no titles, that will tell potential clients/partners that we are different from what they’re used to dealing with.

And that’s a good thing. If the client is ready for different, great, let’s bring it on. If the client is not ready for different, we probably don’t want to engage.

(I use “competitors” in quotes not to suggest no one can compete with us, but because we have such a hard time defining who our competitors are…)

Something else I thought about today, talking to various companies in Minneapolis, is that job titles are particularly useless in our knowledge and services economy. Things are so fluid, and all that such labels do is put people in a box that probably doesn’t suit them.

  1. This is very interesting indeed, especially coming from someone who is on the board of the IAI and a former president of that institution.


    Isn’t a title just a form of metadata used to help find someone. Now! I could see how someone can have more than one title, or titles attributed to them by others other than themselves. Titles do not need to be a controlled vocabulary, nor do they have to come from a controlled source.

    Titles are meant to be rollups. When I’m looking to hire someone I need to say something in a short pithy phrase that can be easily categorized, so I get the best response rate.

    Titles are also used to help clarify to clients also in a pithy way the roles and responsibilities of the individuals involved.

    I could say in either case that I should just give a laundry list of all the tasks, roles, and responsibilities of the individual I’m seeking or using, but that seems rather laborious.

    “Hello, Mr. Client … You need 1 person who can architect the system, program code in Java, manage the team …; 1 person who can program code in java, javascript, html, css, xml …; 1 person who can manage the database, code in SQL, create stored procedures, …

    Or I can say, I need a System Arhitect, UI Engineer, and a Database Administrator.

    Now, you might be talking about using titles that directly refer to heirarchy, like your “creative director” title. To me, not doing this is just ignoring Maslow (which you are free to do). But there are many needs fulfilled here both for the consumers of titles (job hunters and clients) and the workers themselves.

    Knowing where I am in the world is definitely a helpful thing. Knowing implicitly how much I’m appreciated, and demonstrating that to my peers plays into needs around ego, which is pretty important especially in the creative community. When looking for a job the title tells me how much I can expect to be paid, gives me a sense of my position as leadership etc.

    Titles of all sorts, well, are like any other form of metadata. They help give a better clue into the true content of the object being described, allow for filtering, and well is basically a short-cut.

  2. There is a difference betweeen defining roles in a project and defining the professional status quo. The former is fundamental for making communication possible in a work team. It’s a concern with effectiveness. The latter is useful for labeling when selling/buying one’s labour. It’s a commercial concern, in this sense.

    I tend to agree with not mixing the role and the lable. They apply in different moments and different conversation contexts.

  3. Dave’s right. You guys wouldn’t run away from an IA problem, would you? “Geez, categories are hard and sometimes they confuse the issue rather than illuminate. So let’s … use nothing!”

    Can’t we do better? Maybe this is a job for facets, or tags, or something else …

  4. I disagree with Dave’s point. Giving someone a job title does not necessarily disambiguate one’s place in the world. Nor does it make job finding esier. The reason is — and here’s the big secret — job titles are made up!

    Someone could easily work for years at Adaptive Path with no job title. They can during that time describe themselves as they wish at parties, etc. When shopping for a new job, they can call themselves whatever they want so as to make themselves appear more suited to the job to which they are applying. And as long as they don’t misrepresent their responsibilities, and can get someone at AP to vouch for them in the position (whatever they called it), no one cares!

    For example, I had a friend years ago who thought, with some justification then, that an ‘information architect’ and an ‘interaction designer’ did the same thing. When he was applying for an interaction designer job, he put that title on his resume to describe his job. When he was applying for a job called information architect, he used that. He never changed the bullets that described his responsiiblities and accomplishments. And it worked, and it was honest, even though his actual title was something like ‘producer’.

    Job titles are folksonomies, they aren’t dublin core. I know many people feel better believing that there’s some grand arbiter responsible for ensuring that job titles are used properly and consistenly and all that. But the truth is there isn’t. There’s just us, making it up for whatever reason suits our purposes.

    So Peter, when people at AP complain about job titles, take them away. Ask them what they want their next job to be. Then do a search with them on Hotjobs, find a job that they agree looks interesting and for which they feel qualified. Tell them when they are ready to apply for that job, put whatever the title of that job is on their resume to describe their AP work experience. Tell them to have the new employer call you when they check references, and you’ll confirm that they were employed at AP as a whatever. Then tell the truth about how effective the person was, what they accomplished, what you see as their strengths and weaknesses. Problem solved.

  5. What I find most fascinating about most replies to this post (and much of the discussion internally at AP) is how wedded people are to the notion of job titles. And how threatening the idea of removing them is. It’s like they’re a security blanket or something. How Do I Know Who I Am If I Don’t Have A Label?!

    And, really, all I want to do is conduct an experiment to see what is it like to live in a world without job titles. As my prior posts mentioned, it’s been successful elsewhere.

  6. Can you do job titles like the Daily Show with everyone taking turns at being the Senior Correspondent for whatever?
    In your day to day work life you don’t need titles,
    you just need to do your jobs.

  7. This group is trying to figure out what titles should mean but can’t even agree on the meaning of the word “title”? Hm.

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