Directly Responsible Individuals

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

To be effective in product management requires several traits and characteristics. Perhaps most important of these is leadership. Yet unlike functional leadership roles, Product leadership rarely comes with direct authority over personnel, plans, or teams.

Fostering a culture of accountability within the team (people do what they say they will do) is key for effective product management over the long haul. Creating and fostering the concept of Directly Responsible Individuals (DRI) within product teams is an effective method of increase PM leverage. The context behind the DRI is found in a lesson learned from Apple’s Steve Jobs. Steve had a habit of making sure someone was responsible for each item on any meeting agenda, so everybody knew who is responsible.

“Any effective meeting at Apple will have an action list,” says a former employee. “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?”

The concept of DRIs is right at home in the culture of all high quality software product teams. I found this to be true while at TripAdvisor as well . Each day I observed members of the Product Development team taking full ownership for tasks, both large and small, and driving them to completion. It’s one of the main things I love about what I do. When I’m the DRI on a task, it can sometimes come with a bit of apprehension (*Gulp*, not 100% sure how I’m going to do that . . .but ok I’ll figure it out), or maybe with a bit of grumbling (oh man, I guess I gotta do that too), but being the DRI always comes with a sense of responsibility to the team.

Here are a few examples of how a DRI-mindset changes team behavior:

  1. When sending email, we are more deliberate with the use of To: vs. CC: fields. The DRI(s) are in the To: list. Everyone else is CC’d.
  2. When receiving email we tend to ask ourselves “am I understood by the team to be the DRI on this and should therefore take ownership of reply or resolution?” as opposed to thinking “someone else will probably handle this.”
  3. When working on a new or particularly complex problem where the DRI is not yet known, we seek to establish the DRI early in the discussion.
  4. When we gather in meetings, we always leave with action items or next steps. (If we don’t — we need to run better meetings!) Like Steve Jobs, we seek ensure a named DRI for each task.

The notion of the DRI is a fundamental component of the culture of modern product development teams. By seeking to create a culture of accountability with the group, we avoid dependencies on managers to tell the team what to do, and increase reliance on the team to self-organize and know how to proceed.