In a farewell address to the United States in 1953, President Harry S. Truman reflected on his two terms in office. He recounted the many domestic and global affairs that arrived at his desk in the West Wing, where they awaited deliberate, tough decisions.
In essence, President Truman embodied the ethos of a modern-day directly responsible individual who took ownership of complex decisions while accepting the ultimate responsibility for them.
“The President—whoever he is—has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.”
History now recognizes Truman made some of the most crucial decisions of any president—ending the war with Japan, desegregating the U.S. Armed Forces, responding to the Soviet Blockade in Germany, and reacting to the invasion of South Korea.
Truman’s “buck stops here” philosophy framed the importance of decision-making long before technology companies and product leaders started thinking about innovative ways of getting stuff done.
A directly responsible individual (DRI) is a contemporary example of how companies strategically leverage employees to be ultimately responsible for a decision or making sure a project or task gets completed.
The DRI role is flexible by design. They can be a manager, executive, team leader, or an individual contributor. Ultimately, they know how to answer the question, “Who is taking point on that?”
The role of DRI originated from Steve Jobs at Apple who demanded accountability within teams. Famous for walking out of meetings that lacked purpose and direction, Jobs made sure someone was responsible for every action item on every meeting agenda. At Apple, the DRI was where the buck stopped on a project.
“Any effective meeting at Apple will have an action list,”
. “Next to each action item will be the DRI.” A common phrase heard around Apple when someone is trying to learn the right contact on a project: “Who’s the DRI on that?”
How DRIs orchestrate OKR success at Coda.
Today, variations of DRIs exist throughout the technology sector. Google has “sheriffs,” and Facebook has a similarly-named “designated response individual.” At Microsoft, DRIs lowered bugs and support tickets by
, DRIs at Coda have been pivotal to the evolution of rituals that unlock productivity no matter where we work—we call them drivers. They serve a dual role of driving discussions forward, but they’re also empowered to make decisions. Functionally, drivers are responsible for running our
. Tactically, DRIs communicate the progress of key metrics and ensure they’re visible to the company.
Drivers are central figures in our OKR process—maestros that galvanize groups to ensure we’re working in concert to reach key results. We’ve found that group work presents two challenges for individuals that feel the brunt of the responsibility:
1) Driving key decisions, and doing so quickly.
2) Owning the maintenance and reporting aspect of OKRs: keeping scores updated, adding progress notes, updating the team on obstacles, and writing the final summary at the quarter’s end.
By using a driver, we’ve been able to shift questions about who owns tasks to a single point-person that is highly capable of taking on work and getting it done.
How do we select our DRIs?
In most cases, the choice for our driver is obvious, like the primary engineer working on an integration or the author of a blog post. Ownership usually aligns naturally with the person writing an OKR in the first place.
Suppose the choice for a driver is not clear. In that case, we use an “algorithm” based on the children’s fable, Chicken and Pig to identify people fully-committed to the project. In the story, a bacon and egg breakfast is used to illustrate that a chicken is involved because it can bring eggs, but the pig is fully-committed because in order to provide bacon, he is ultimately sacrificed. Chickens are involved, but the pigs are committed. We like to identify drivers who are totally committed to the project and accountable for the outcomes over those who are just involved—those who consult on the project and are informed of its progress.
What are the roles and responsibilities of a DRI?
Drivers juggle several responsibilities that are crucial to our OKR success, from planning to completion:
Planning: Write, maintain, and update OKRs.
Benchmarking: Ensure metrics are good ones to capture the success of key results.
Driving: Make key decisions, involve the right people, and escalate if things get blocked.
How do we measure success for the DRI?
Essentially, the measure of a driver’s success at Coda is the completion of the OKR itself. Drivers are charged with momentum towards specific key results, goals, and tracking accountability along the way. It’s essential that drivers remove ambiguity and our OKRs rely on metrics to provide context for objectives and bring back key results to our company goals. Drivers share the impact of metrics with everyone so teams understand how they can rise above impractical goals. You can learn more about how we grade and measure our OKRs with this
In addition to being fully-committed to the project, our drivers are great leaders, exude strong communication skills, and are poised decision-makers. Whether it’s a project or a task, drivers tap into a blend of skills that can change rapidly from creating and writing the doc, to choosing invite lists and leading meetings.
How DRIS can influence success.
It’s easy to lose sight of important tasks at a fast-growing company. Accountability and discipline are DRI superpowers that strengthen the way teams work together by removing ambiguity, minimizing redundant work, saving time, and scaling the OKR process.
We’ve all been in a meeting without a clear understanding of tasks. During a quarterly sprint, those tasks could be critical to meeting an OKR. These priorities don’t fall off the radar because of irresponsibility so much as everyone else is busy taking on other work. That’s called diffusion of responsibility—the more people in attendance, the less likely anyone will be to step up and take on work. DRIs ensure you never hear “my colleague will take that” by answering questions relating to tasks and ownership.
Sometimes, proactive employees will complete a task without knowing what another colleague already did. We can all appreciate the positive spirit, but repetitive work is wasteful work. A DRI coordinates with the team to ensure their best work is collaborative, not siloed.
DRIs clarify emails and meetings by deciding who needs to be invited. By removing unnecessary email recipients and attendees, the DRI can decide who belongs, increasing the odds that everyone will have the context to get them moving on the key tasks they’re responsible for.
At a high-performing company, everyone can feel like they’re being pulled in multiple directions—looped into endless email threads and meetings. DRIs can step into the meetings and emails to answer questions and delegate, freeing the manager to focus on bigger issues.
When DRIs alleviate constraint and complexity.
Once you understand how DRIs can deliver success, you'll have a better idea of where you can best utilize them in the company. It can be tempting to leverage a DRI for every single task, but if you’re just getting started, it’s helpful to embed them in places that are sources of complexity or constraint such as cross-functional efforts or relieving those who are blocked by other tasks.
These are a few examples of how a DRI can help make an impact:
Working across the company.
Many projects have moving parts that impact multiple teams. Cross-functionality is one area where responsibility gets shifted or forgotten completely. That’s because anyone can be the point person for decision-making or own a project. The DRI becomes the true owner by being the liaison that connects teams.
Leaders are constrained.
When a manager feels like they are being stretched too thin, a DRI is a perfect solution to help relieve their pressure by delegating decisions.
Adding new capabilities or departments is the perfect use case for a DRI because nobody has ownership, and miscommunication is rampant as new people filter into the organization. In this scenario, the DRI gets everyone on the same page, so they know what to expect.
It’s easy to underestimate how long a project will take. For long-term projects with complex decisions, a DRI becomes the primary point person that ensures milestones and tasks are moving forward.
Choosing the best DRI for your project.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to choosing a DRI.
The biggest requirement is that they’re able to get things done and take responsibility for their choices. While a DRI is not exactly the same as a project manager, they share many of the same characteristics—the ability to track project progress, resilience in the face of adversity, and consistent reliability.
Traits that make an ideal DRI.
A meticulous DRI keeps complex information organized by paying attention to all the moving pieces.
Informative DRIs constantly talk with project stakeholders so that everyone is updated— over-communication is key.
Perceptive DRIs are not only good listeners, but they know how and when to ask good questions.
DRIs have the ability to keep going even when things don’t go to plan.
A proactive DRI creates action items and also tracks down to-dos from others.
Diligent DRIs leave no stone unturned, showing great attention to detail and exercising care and precision.
Trusted DRIs are counted on to provide consistently high-quality work.
Perceptive DRIs foresee the future by anticipating problems before they happen and can quickly figure out a path to success.
There are no rows in this table
Now that you understand the traits to look for, it’s time to assign the DRI for the work that needs to be accomplished. What colleague has a decent mix of traits that will be the foundation for support in their quest to getting work done?
Choosing a DRI should not require its own DRI. Whether it’s the team lead or someone who has room in their schedule, it all comes back to whether or not the individual is someone who can get it done. One of the best ways to assign roles and responsibility is the
and the responsible and accountable roles become the DRI—they gather thoughts of subject-matter experts (consulted), and keep informed people updated on all the progress.
Those who accept the challenge of being a DRI are rewarded with strengthened skills that bolster their career experience. When a project is complete, they can easily point to metrics and results that got them to the finish line. Because visibility is a key component of the DRI role, colleagues and other teams will be able to see the accomplishments.
Put your DRI in the driver’s seat for OKR success.
A DRI brings alignment to the OKR process for teams and shines a light on goals for the entire company. Here at Coda, we’re passionate about planning and execution. Not only do we build for ourselves, but we also love helping our customers find the best tools for the job. Coda is a the perfect platform to design an OKR process that puts your DRIs in a position to meet their specific needs.