After hiring upwards of fifty people over the past ten years, I am ready to fess up. I loath writing job descriptions.
A few years ago at a previous company, I introduced a new product director role within my business unit. I knew what I was after: someone who could lift their head above the day-to-day to take a broader look at customer needs, product gaps, new upgrades, and business performance. Yet when I sat down to write the job description, I felt an overwhelming resistance. This was a new position in a turn-around business. How could I possibly break down the specific activities that this person would do in order to meet their goals? Wasn’t I misguided – arrogant even – to think that I could be that prescriptive about how a person should spend their time?
I wrote something that I am sure was formulaic and boring. I interviewed nearly a dozen candidates for that role, most of whom looked good on paper but none of whom quite fit. In the end, I hired someone who I’d work with previously. She didn’t have formal product management experience, but I knew that she had the analytical skills, hunger, and raw intelligence to thrive in the position. She became a gifted and highly respected part of the team.
It had nothing to do with the job description.
A brief history of the job description…and why it no longer works
Like so many of our current organisational practices and artifacts, job descriptions have their roots in 19th and early 20th Century industralisation, when factory owners needed workers and newspapers or broadsheets ensured broad distribution of this need.
This historical job description is old-fashioned in its typeset and language (twisting, spooling, spinning, doffing, and quilling — anyone? anyone?). We are aghast at its casual endorsement of child labour — we know better than that now. Yet we continue to follow the advert’s basic formula!
Google “how to write a job description” and most results assume its format: 5 Simple Steps To Writing A Concise Job Description! Free job descriptions — writing templates and examples! (I added the exclamation points. I imagine that’s how they are supposed to sound if read aloud.)
The problem is that this formula assumes stable market conditions in which a company’s forward direction is knowable, and, therefore, hierarchies, teams, and the basic unit of work — jobs — can be defined and enshrined.
That’s no longer the world that we live in.
An alternative: The capabilities spec
So if job descriptions no longer work, then what do we replace them with? I suggest an alternative: The capabilities spec.
A specification that emphasises the capabilities, skills, and attitudes that someone needs in order to be successful in their role, rather than predefined duties and tasks
This approach acknowledges the modern reality: tasks will shift based upon emerging threats and opportunities, but the underlying personal attributes that make someone resilient, productive, and adaptable endure. For a great example in practice, check out the 12-point capability map in Mark Kuznicki’s post What is an Innovation Designer?
There’s another reason to use a capability spec. They provide a structure and a set of criteria that help us evaluate candidates, making it possible to lose the job description without unmooring the entire recruitment or personal development process.
To move from job descriptions to capability specs or other alternatives, we will need to address not only organisational inertia (we have always done it this way!) but also legal implications such as making changes to contracts of employment, which typically include job descriptions. While critical to address, these barriers should not stop us from seeking a new approach.
We also need to consider how this plays out with highly specialised jobs requiring previous experience, certifications, and advanced degrees — for example, doctors, lawyers, accountants. I would argue that, even here, we need to loosen the strictures.
These jobs are being deconstructed and reconstituted due to advances in automation and artificial intelligence. We still need doctors that know anatomy, biology, and chemistry. But increasingly, we need ones who also possess or are willing to build capabilities of data visualisation, storytelling, and life-long learning, since they will be integrating insights from AI into their prognoses and patient care.
Examples of modern job postings that prioritise capabilities
Here are three examples of modern job postings that are free from the drudgery of long duties lists, emphasise skills, capabilities, and attitude, and have a dash of the company’s personality mixed in.
Innocent Drinks is known for its cheeky brand. We see this spirit of fun even within this posting for the expert role of supply chain leader. The posting still mentions critical requirements — candidates need to have a proven track record managing multi country 3PL operations — but most of the real estate focuses on the capabilities and attitudes that will make someone successful in the role.
Like the example above, this job posting from Netflix emphasises candidate capabilities and attitudes. This one also works because it lays out the characteristics a candidate needs to succeed at Netflix (a smart minimalist, succinct communicator). No doubt this copy writes itself, thanks to the baseline efforts Netflix has taken to codify and document its culture.
Buurtzoorg, the Dutch home-care organisation, is well-known for its progressive approach to org structure and culture. This philosophy translates into its job advert for community nurses. It demonstrates how you can still include a capabilities approach even for roles requiring specialist qualifications.
Creating our own capabilities spec
At Post*Shift, we are constantly experimenting with new ways of working and the supporting artifacts. We are still a lean team – we need people to pitch in when they have the right skills or simply a good idea. Recently, we have taken to writing our job adverts with a heavy emphasis on capabilities, skills, and attitude, and with light references to hard requirements.
Our most recent posting for an agile project manager takes this approach. Check it out. We would love to hear what you think…and, if you are up for this particular challenge, then we would love for you to apply!