by Matthew Moran

How Job Titles Kill Innovation

Jan 26, 20157 mins
IT Leadership

Matthew Moran discusses how tightly defined job titles and job descriptions kill innovation in IT, and offers insight into creating a more concept- and value-driven team.

I used to work for a large insurance company — one of the largest. I created document assembly systems. In fact, I started doing this back in the Word Perfect and Word for DOS days of 1988.

No integrated office applications here!

It was a crazy, wild west, send keystrokes via command line all over the place, type of affair.

Sure, it looked integrated some of the time but there was duct tape and baling wire keeping stuff together. It was about as much fun as you could have building a solution … seriously!

Do any of you remember those days?

My Job Title Changes; My Job Description Never Does

My job title, initially, was Jr. Data Reporting Clerk! 

I don’t even know what that is.

I was hired to compile data from various printed forms other employees in my department gave me each week. It was some flat file reporting application whose name I do not recall. Soon after I was hired, I wrote a networked Clipper app, taking me out of the data entry business. By the time I left, it was a VB/SQL Server application.

As for my job title, I graduated to business analyst, senior business analyst, and then project manager.

Eventually, this led to several contracts, which led to a company, which led to a partnership, which led to me becoming CIO of a financial services company.

Since then, I’ve been the CIO or Virtual-CIO of a few businesses.

Regarding my varied job titles … each had an accompanying job description. I’ve never read any of them.

Job Titles Kill Innovation

When I work with CIOs and speak to IT professionals and college students aspiring to IT, I explain that job titles are dangerous. They can kill innovation!

If you are in IT management, and you begin to view your team in terms of their roles and titles, you WILL hinder or kill innovation.

If you are an IT professional, and you view your job and responsibilities as primarily driven by your job description, you will become less innovative!

I understand I am making the HR people cringe and sweat! And if you are a largely process driven manager, you may be experiencing the same.

Stay with me for a little bit. 

My Internal Job Description Has Never Changed

Let me simplify everyone’s role and responsibility, and provide the following universal job description!

Add value to the organization(s) you serve!

If you are bold, you might even say:

Add TREMENDOUS value to the organization(s) you serve!

Of course, you have responsibilities and projects … I get it. You need to do them … and do them well. That is your first responsibility! I’m not suggesting that process and due diligence be thrown out the window. Just the over-reliance or focus on it. 

The Best IT Executive I’ve Ever Worked For

I had the opportunity to work for a CIO who epitomized what I call, concept-driving innovation.

I was primarily building document assembly projects for him. However, I was impressed with how he introduced projects to the team.

He would come out of his office, apparently after a call with key stakeholders or company executives. He would literally shout out across the department.

“Hey, listen up! We have a challenge.”

He would give a cursory description of what was being requested and ask if anyone had ideas of how to best solve the problem.

The results were amazing!

It might be an application project but he would get input from people who did infrastructure and support, application development and training.

Based on the response, he would select three or more of the people who had provided what he thought was valuable input and ask them into his office. He, of course, included at least one individual whose primary job touched the apparent solution.

Inside his office, the ideas were further discussed and the guts of a project created. Those individuals or others who were identified as good candidates were added to a project team and next steps were assigned.

Think Like a Startup

If you’ve ever worked for a startup, that wild-west, everyone’s a developer, everyone’s in sales, etc., you recognize this. In short, he ran the department like a startup.

Yes, there were job titles and specific roles. Everyone had their responsibilities. And, of course, workload, due dates, and resource allocation were considered.

But, if he felt your insight was valuable to a project, he would allow some of your time and attention to be spent on projects very different than your primary job title or job description.

Okay, I’m assuming about the job description part — like I said, I never read mine. 

Great Responsibility and Great Demands

He also demanded a LOT!

I remember a conversation with our New York office. A problem, an emergency project, had come up.

They were talking to external consultants who had said that solving this problem was a four-person, six-week project. The New York office had two weeks to get this done!

I was listening to the call and said, “I think I can do it.”

He muted the button and turned to me and said, “I don’t need to know if you THINK you can do it. I need to know if you CAN do it!”


I said yes and was on a plane to New York that afternoon. We pushed go on a specialized application 12 days later and the project was successful.

3 Critical Lessons He Taught Me

1) Answers are everywhere

You have a team for a reason. Use them. You don’t know what someone may have read recently. You may not know areas of interest or projects they play around with at home.

Failing to create inclusive discussions about the challenges and solutions the organization needs will invariably lead to less innovative thinking from your team!

FYI: It is why I LOVE “shadow IT” — although I hate the term. But that’s another blog entry.

2) Diversity is a killer app

Okay … we aren’t speaking about gender, race or any other type of diversity except for thought, experience, and idea diversity. In the end, that is the most important diversity required for innovation.

And yes, that Jr. Analyst, fresh out of college, might just surprise the hell out you! Give her that chance!

3) Reward Innovation with Innovation

Want to get cross departmental innovation? Then, notice it and provide opportunities for more of it.

When more people on the team notice that innovation and un-boxed thinking is recognized and rewarded, they’ll be more apt to chime in. More importantly, they’ll recognize that their value does NOT begin and end with their job title.

I also believe that by creating this environment, he fostered a bold solution mindset. He could demand a lot — like our conversation above — and get it because his team felt empowered!

Ignore the buzzy-ness of that word — empowered — and truly consider what it means.

He pushed and demanded that you deliver what you said you could deliver. He provided leeway in the method and mostly let you define the resources you needed to be successful!

Do Job Titles Matter?

Of course. You need to have a demarcation of primary responsibility. Plus, people do like structure — some idea of where they sit in an organization and on a team.

Just make sure you include, in their job description, the line, “Add value to the organization!”

I’d make it the first line!