Sunday, May 10, 2009

Prototyping new roles: story of Malaysian Airlines

In an earlier article, Top challenges in developing technical leadership I had identified lack of meaningful roles as one of the key challenges. In this article, we dig deeper into this issue. The challenge is as follows: Creation of new roles such as Solution Architect or Chief Test Architect is usually looked upon with apprehension. Management wonders whether there is enough “meat” in the role and potential candidates are not sure if these roles are secure and really valuable. A question that arises is: Can we prototype new roles without actually creating full-time positions? Let’s look at one such example from Malaysian Airlines.

When Idris Jala took over as the CEO of Malaysian Airlines in December 2005, it was less than four months away from running out of cash. In his own words “we had no time to reorganize, to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic”. However, there were critical problems to fix. One such problem was “yield” which was related to route profitability. Idris says in an interview with McKinsey (registration required and is free):

I prefer to keep the current setup and change the responsibilities. For instance, our laboratories developed a new job—route profitability manager—that didn’t exist in our structure. Instead of adding a new player, we told people to double up on their responsibilities. The person taking on the responsibility might not be a regional manager; it could be a subordinate. But someone was now responsible for profitability on that route. The structure remained the same, but we gave people a new vocabulary, new responsibilities. Once we were sure that the new thinking works, we got rid of the transitional role. With route profitability managers, we did that after one year.

If I look back at my career, I can see several occasions where I took up additional responsibilities substantially different from my primary role. For example, while I was a project manager, I played a role of pre-sales for a major account acquisition; I also assisted CTO in managing research projects, contributed to product architecture. Some of these roles created full-time opportunities later on.

I feel the success of such roles would depend upon the criticality of business need the role is addressing. For example, the “route profitability” as a business need in case of Malaysian Airlines. Of course, it would also depend upon the competence of the person playing the role.

Moral of the story is, creating new roles without creating full-time positions and giving concrete accountability to the role is an option worth exploring.

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