I was reminded recently of a meeting I attended some 25 years ago, in the run-up to the privatisation of the UK Electricity Supply Industry. It was a regular get-together of a working group that had been set up to look at the new organizational practices required to operate effectively in the soon-to-be-competitive power generation market.
We had gathered at a hotel on the site of East Midlands Airport to discuss, amongst other things, some proposed job descriptions for the senior manager roles in the new company’s power stations. These had been produced by consultants from one of the ‘Big Five’ consultancy firms of the time, who were acting as advisors across a range of aspects of commercial operation.
I was not impressed. And I said so. “What you’ve produced bears no relationship to my particular role,” I said, “And it doesn’t inspire me at all!”
“It’s not supposed to inspire you,” replied the Group Manager who had been overseeing the consultants’ work, “It’s for assessment purposes. And nobody reads them anyway.”
“Well, if this ‘new world’ is to mean anything,” I countered, “We ought to be inspired by the roles we’re performing. If we’re not inspired, how can we expect anyone else to be?”
At this point, the Director who was chairing the meeting intervened. He noted the work that had been done to produce the descriptions, acknowledged the exchange, and moved things on.
From tasks to contributions
Soon afterwards, during a break in the meeting, he confided that he agreed with my sentiments but felt that he couldn’t do so publicly at the time. Instead, he asked me to write to him privately, setting out my thoughts on how these documents ought to be written. And so was born the Contribution Statement.
Then, as now, this sets out to answer the question:
What specific contribution is the role intended to make which, if performed excellently, can make a significant difference to organizational performance and/or capability?”
It therefore begins by stating the role’s purpose – to make clear why it exists at all – and then sets out the performance aims for which the role-holder is accountable.
This focus on outputs (contribution and results) rather than inputs (resource usage and activities carried out) is an invitation to escape from the ‘activity trap’ of rigid job descriptions and procedural straight-jackets that too often limit performance – and ambition.
 Odiorne, G. (1974) Management and the Activity Trap. Heinemann