The Proliferation of Undoable Jobs and How To Recognize Them

A friend was recently describing jobs that a head hunter was sending her way. The totally unrealistic scope, scale, and complexity of the jobs reminded me of a trend I observed a number of years ago which I started referring to as the “proliferation of undoable jobs.”

What makes a job undoable?

1. Job titles that create unrealistic expectations. Just because you can name a job doesn’t mean it is doable. Good examples include many of the jobs titled Chief [fill in the blank] Officer. Many of these jobs were originally created to show that the company was doing something about a cross-cutting problem that no one was sure how to solve –  Chief Risk Officer, Chief Ethics Officer, and Chief Creative Officer. The poster child for these kinds of jobs was the Chief Information Officer. CIOs used to joke that CIO really stood for “career is over.” Not long ago, a dead giveaway that a job was undoable was when the press put the word czar after it, as in Energy Czar.

Photo Credit: Everfalling via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Everfalling via Compfight cc

2. Mismatch of responsibility with authority. To do a job well, you need authority. It does not necessarily need to be direct authority, but you have to be able to significantly influence the direction of the things you are responsible for managing. You need to be included in the relevant decision making processes with sign-off responsibility if not veto power. As more companies churn through reorganizations which “roll their matrix” and they try to balance integration across one dimension with efficiencies across another, they frequently spin-off a new generation of toothless and undoable jobs.

3. Unique skills mix of the predecessor. Some jobs are undoable because they were originally designed around an individual with a unique set of skills combined with unique experience in the organization. When this person leaves, the next few people who try to do the job are set up to fail because they do not have that same unique set of qualifications. Beware of taking one of these one-off jobs. Better to get them to re-design the job to match your strengths.

4. No realistic performance measures. Some jobs are undoable because their performance is evaluated based on inputs like time recorded or billable hours. They become undoable because there is no measure of how much is enough. Some firms expect to burn out a certain percentage of employees in a survival of the fittest strategy for choosing partners who then get to burn out the next batch of junior staff. The latest generation to join the workforce seems to be developing a healthy suspicion of this strategy. They want clearer output objectives to let them optimze their time to achieve a target level of performance so they can benefit from their own innovations and efficiencies to improve the quality of their overall life.

5. The [supply your own colorful adjectives] boss or co-worker. Some jobs are undoable because the boss chews people up and spits them out. Or a key co-worker is someone who no one can work with or rely on. No matter how doable the job looks on paper, the particular boss or co-worker makes the job undoable either through incompetence or unacceptable behavior. Sad to say this is more common than one would hope.

If a job has several of these five characteristics, beware! If the job has a high rate of turnover or nobody wants it, that should tell you something. Ultimately the market speaks and the word will go out that this job is a career killer and the best people will avoid it and tell the people they mentor to avoid it as well. Trying to do an undoable job doesn’t make you a hero, it makes you a collaborator in your own unhappiness. There are still plenty of doable jobs out there. Find one or design your own.




2 responses to “The Proliferation of Undoable Jobs and How To Recognize Them”

  1. This is so spot on, Giles. So much of the unhappiness in the workplace is due to badly designed jobs, and there just aren’t enough people out there who know the principles of good job design. I think you’ve got the main factors outlined very well here.