This guide is intended to help you learn everything you need to know about how to use Directly Responsible Individuals (aka DRIs) to build a high performing team.
But before we dive in, I’d like to tell a quick but relevant story…
The first time I played soccer, I cried.
It happened during my rookie game. When the ball came rolling towards me the first time, I instinctually jumped on it as any six year old would do. I knew that my job was to stop the ball from going in the goal. Success! Or so I thought…
Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell me that I was playing defense.
My responsibility was to use my feet to keep the ball away from getting to our goalie. Of course, when I used my hands on defense the referee stopped the game and yelled at me. The other team got a penalty kick and scored a goal.
Naturally, I was devastated and embarrassed by my mistake. Tears ensued. I had let my team down and to top it all off, I didn’t even know the rules of my position!
No one likes getting yelled at without understanding the reason why, especially a six year old. Luckily, the coach finally told me I couldn’t use my hands and explained the rules, and everything ended up fine. I even had fun the rest of the season playing soccer with my friends.
So why am I telling you about this traumatic (but admittedly funny) story from my childhood?
Well, it’s because this type of situation happens all the time to adults at work. I’m talking about being blamed for problems and issues without knowing you were accountable in the first place. When that happens, people get discouraged, and may even ultimately quit your team.
The good news is that issues caused by lack of responsibility can easily be avoided by defining Directly Responsible Individuals (aka DRIs).
What are Directly Responsible Individuals?
DRI stands for directly responsible individual.
It’s a title given to the person who is ultimately responsible for a decision or making sure a project or tasks is completed.
I first saw this concept put into practice at my previous job at HubSpot.
Leaders would frequently say to an individual, “you’re the DRI on this.” It was short hand for telling someone that they were responsible for making something happen.
HubSpot picked this system up from Steve Jobs, who’s credited with using DRIs at Apple to make sure things got done.
DRIs were an important part of Steve Job’s accountability mindset. According to a former Apple employee who worked on the original iPhone:
I’ve tweeted about this before, but when we made the original iPhone, we didn’t have product managers. We had directly responsible individuals (DRIs). Each important piece of work had a single person charged with seeing to it that the work got done. 1/— Ken Kocienda (@kocienda) August 28, 2022
We use DRIs all the time at my own company, Tettra. In the rest of this article, we’re going to dive into how to effectively use DRIs and why it’s an important system for any high performance, growing team.
Why is it important to assign accountability?
Assigning accountability is important for running an effective team. It can make the difference between success and failure on an important project.
1. Cuts down on ambiguity and deferred responsibility
Assigning DRIs is a good practice is because it cuts down on ambiguity and deferred responsibility, which is a psychological phenomenon where people are less likely to take responsibility when other people are present. The larger the group, the more likely people are to defer ownership.
Think about when a mass email gets sent out. Who is supposed to respond? Most likely you’ll ignore the email, thinking someone else will respond. But what if no one else does because everyone else is thinking the same exact thing as you? That’s deferred responsibility in action.
On a team, deferred responsibility can be devastating. Think about how many times you’ve probably thought, “my teammate will take care of that”, only to have the other person think the same exact thing of you, then the important task someone was supposed to take care of doesn’t get done. This issue is easily solved by assigning a directly responsible individual. A DRI has the final say on all questions that arise on a team or in relation to a project. Because individual responsibility is assigned to a single person, nothing will slip through the cracks.
2. Minimizes repetitive work
If you have good people on your team and they both think they’re responsible for a task, then they’re both going to do it. Unfortunately, this means repetitive work, which is a way of wasting everyone’s time. Assigning a specific individual will allow multiple people to coordinate together better to make sure work doesn’t get repeated.
3. Save time and money by making communication more obvious and explicit
Assigning a DRI will make it more clear who should be included on an email or pulled into a meeting. So often, people will invite unnecessary people into meetings or include dozens of people on an email because they don’t know who should be privy to the information.
If your team is made primarily of knowledge workers and salaries are one of your biggest expenses, the time cost of meetings really adds up to a huge expenses.
When DRIs are defined and well documented, it’s much easier to find out who should be in a meeting, on an email thread, or pulled into a chat. The DRI can then make good decisions to pull in other’s as they see fit because they have the most context on who should be involved.
Even if you’re not the DRI, knowing someone else is responsible allows you to bow out of decisions or meetings. Steve Jobs was famous for walking out of meetings and making sure meetings were kept small. He even declined an invitation to a meeting of tech leaders from President Obama one time because the gathering was too big for his liking. Knowing if you are or not the DRI one a project allows you to prioritize your time much more effectively.
4. Allows managers/leaders to scale decision making
Avoiding decision-making bottlenecks is one of a high-performance leader’s more important tasks. Delegating to DRIs is a great way to avoid creating bottlenecks and scale your decision on your team. Assigning a DRI breaks the dependency managers often feel to be the decision maker.
Having good DRIs also allows managers to avoid being pulled into every meeting or email thread that may be related to their job, but not 100% necessary for them to make a decision on. Being able to tell another stakeholder, “Susie is the DRI Talk to her” saves a ton of time and lets you make sure your team is moving as fast as it can.
Common cases for when to use DRIs
If you’re just getting started with using DRIs, it can tempting to assign a DRI for every single small task. Unfortunately, that can create a lot of work to get your DRI system going initially and people might not adopt it.
Here are some common cases where it’s highly likely you should assign a DRI.
Working with cross-functional teams
Oftentimes it’s ambiguous who own’s a decision or is accountable for making sure a project is completed. Usually, people defer to the org chat for who owns what. The VP of Product probably owns a decision like what feature to build next. The VP of Marketing probably owns a what should be posted on the blog next. But who owns writing and posting a new feature announcement? Product knows why the feature was built but marketing usually writes the blog post and publishes them?
Projects thats overlap into multiple departments usually involve cross functional teams, which are teams that have people involved from more than one function of a company (sales + marketing, marketing + product, etc.)
Cross-functional teams are a breeding ground for deferred responsibility because both people could theoretically own a decision or project, but there is true owner. Assigning a DRI for cross-functional teams is always a good idea.
New capabilities or departments
Adding a new capability into a team or organization can cause miscommunication on who is responsible. Because no one has every own the capability before, it’s inherently unassigned to a DRI. Whenever you’re exploring a new role or project, it’s a good idea to assign a DRI. Don’t be afraid if it’s not the optimal person at the start. The important thing is to have someone who is ultimately accountable for getting the ball rolling. You can always assign a new DRI that makes more sense if one emerges later.
Long term projects or complex decision
Projects that are going to last awhile or decisions that may take a long time should have a DRI. The reason is because humans are very susceptible to planning fallacy—our tendency to underestimate how long it takes to complete a task and overestimate the time we have to get it done. Making sure there’s a person who is accountable to keep momentum on a project moving forward helps.
A leader that’s stretched too thin
A good leader avoids bottlenecks. But sometimes even good leaders get stretched too thin and start lagging on important decisions. Assigning DRIs and delegating responsibility can help.
After a new hire joins the team
New people on a team lack important institutional knowledge on who owns what. Sometimes, the owner might even be them and they don’t even know. Telling a new person on your team that they are the DRI on a job might seem obvious, but so many people forget to do it. When that person ultimately misses a responsibility they were supposed to do but didn’t know they were responsible for, they’ll be upset and resentful. This is easily avoided by articulating to them that they are the DRI.
How to setup an effective DRI system
Decide and define DRIs early
A good rule of thumb is to decide the DRI early when starting any new project or internal capability. The reason being is because it will eliminate any ambiguity on who is ultimately responsible for moving everything forward.
When I was at HubSpot, teams defined a DRI for every follow up tasks after a meeting. Knowing that each task would be completed and reported on in a follow up meeting is effective. If you leave a meeting without knowing who will complete specific work, then that meeting was probably a waste of everyone’s time. Even worse, your team will waste more time following up on follow ups in chat or email.
How do you decide who the DRI should be?
Deciding who the DRI should be on a task or project can be tough. Should the manager take it, or the person with some upcoming slack in their schedule? Realistically, a DRI can be anyone on your team who’s likely to complete the project. It doesn’t need to be a manager or even necessarily the person usually responsible for a type of task.
Characteristics of a good DRI
It doesn’t matter if a DRI is extroverted, introverted, or anywhere in between. In reality, DRIs can take on all shapes and forms. The important thing is that a DRI can GSD (get stuff done). Here are some characteristics of what makes a good DRI:
- High attention to detail – Stays organized during a complex & often long process and keeps focused on long-term strategy.
- Candid and communicative – Able to communicate honestly with stakeholders involved with a project, and over-communicates what’s happening to all stakeholders to keep everyone informed and check on the status of follow-up items.
- Confident and clear – Able to interact with senior levels without getting flustered and able to loop in junior levels without confusing them.
- Ability to anticipate needs – Able to see coming problems and head them off before they derail the project.
- Resilient – There will be setbacks. A good DRI doesn’t let challenges knock them down.
- Action oriented – Wrangling multiple stakeholders can be tough at times. A good DRI will make sure they’re not only creating action items for themselves, but they’re also holding other accountable to get stuff done too.
The upsides and downsides of being the DRI
Taking on the responsibilities of a DRI has both upsides and downsides. The upsides are that you’ll showcase your skills as a results-driven individual capable of taking on a project and executing on it successfully. The downsides are that you may already be stretched too thin and getting assigned accountability feels like taking yet another thing on. At the end of the day, it’s up to the individual to accept the responsibilities of being a DRI.
Define accountability through documentation
Have you heard that old conundrum, “if it a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise?”
DRIs are exactly the same way. If there isn’t a list of the active DRIs somewhere that’s easily accessible to everyone on the team, you might as well not even be assigning DRIs at all.
Having a central repository of DRIs is key to helping a team scale. Your team’s internal knowledge base is a great place to list roles and responsibilities.
You don’t need to do anything complicated either. Just list out each owner, their name, and a brief description of what they’re accountable for on the team. If your wiki supports internal mentions, it’s a good idea to include those too because it’ll be easier for everyone else on the team to figure out how to get in touch with the team’s DRIs.
Another good habit to get into as a team is deciding DRIs for specific tasks after each meeting and including those in the meeting notes. They should also be published on your internal documentation system added into the description of the calendar invite for any follow-up meeting.
Publishing the list of DRIs internally and making them easy to find helps everyone involved in a project or at a meeting remember who was responsible for what.
The important thing is to define and document your list of DRIs for access later.
Use Tettra for Internal Documentation
Tettra is an AI-powered knowledge management system that helps you curate important company information into a knowledge base, use it to answer repetitive questions in Slack and MS Teams and keep it up-to-date, organized, and complete with automation.
Tettra can be used as a documentation tool to help teams share information about their processes.
If you don’t have an internal system for documentation, just use Google Docs or Sheets to create a list of DRIs, and make sure it accessible to everyone on your team.
A version of this article first appeared in 2018.