In my role at Invoca I have had the opportunity to take part in and lead many different projects, which have spanned in length from a few weeks to 12+ months. As the lead for many of these projects I have been able to learn a great deal about habits that facilitate working on projects effectively and help build leadership skills. Here are some things I wish I had known when starting many of these projects.
What is a DRI?
DRI: Directly Responsible Individual — A title given to the person who is ultimately responsible for making sure a project or task(s) is completed. At Invoca this role is most commonly used for medium to large size projects, and although it isn’t always equivalent, for the purposes of this article you can roughly equate a DRI to a project lead.
Why is it beneficial to assign a DRI? Some reasons are:
- It assigns accountability for the whole project, which means it’s less likely for small details and tasks to “fall through the cracks”, those of which could be missed when responsibility is spread among multiple individuals.
- Communication becomes more clear and efficient as questions, suggestions, etc. are routed to the DRI (who can then route that question along to someone else if necessary).
- It prevents duplicate work as the DRI has a complete picture of the entire project.
- Decision making becomes more explicit, as the team can consistently rely on the DRI to take the necessary steps to produce a decision, whether that’s through making the decision themselves, formulating group consensus, or delegating to someone else.
What is a DRI responsible for?
A DRI’s main responsibility is to ensure the success of the project, regardless of how that happens. It will often be the responsibility of this role to determine how work should be done for the project to be successful. The DRI may do all of the work, none of the work, or any amount in between, and it is up to the DRI to determine what level of direct involvement they have. It is important to note that regardless of how much of the work they take on directly, they are accountable for all of the work being completed. A DRI will be the main point of contact for questions or discussions about the project, which makes it their responsibility to ensure consistent communication takes place amongst everyone involved.
What practices are helpful when being a DRI?
Be a reliable and helpful “Source of Truth”
Because the DRI will be the main point of contact about the project, it is important that they keep themselves up to date with all progress and changes so that context can be consistently shared with others. This also becomes very important when taking others’ opinions into account as that shared context can help provide insight into why certain decisions will be most beneficial. To be a reliable source of truth, all decisions, plans, and tasks should be documented in a way that is consistent, easy to understand, and easy to access by all team members. The DRI should make the assumption that it will always be their responsibility to keep documentation up to date. This not only is helpful for team members, but for their future self as well.
- Have a shared document that contains all major project decisions and the corresponding details. Make sure to keep this up to date and organized. When someone has a question about why a certain decision was made, this can be quickly referred to without needing to ask any specific person to recall the details.
- Create a diagram of all specific tasks that are needed, how they’re related, and label each task according to their current status. This helps show the state of the project at a high level: how much work has been completed, how much is in flight, and how much remains.
Maintain 3 Different Viewpoints of the Project
As the main individual focusing on the project, the DRI has a unique opportunity to observe the project from three different viewpoints.
- The ground-level view refers to awareness of the specific details of the individual tasks of the project.
- The mid-level view is understanding the overall state of the project, the general status of tasks, what tasks rely on each other, and which can be done in parallel.
- The high-level view refers to awareness of external factors that influence the project such as knowing the project’s deadline, urgency, and priority, knowing the availability and experience of the team members that are going to work on the tasks, and knowing how other projects in flight may affect this project.
Keeping these different viewpoints in mind allows the DRI to balance short term and long term success, justify decisions that may not appear beneficial from a singular viewpoint, and stay flexible to changing circumstances.
- In your diagram, group tasks together into milestones with rough estimates as to when the team expects each milestone to be completed. By setting these internal deadlines you can quickly recognize if mid-level or high-level factors are influencing the overall progress of the project and can react accordingly.
- Consistently ask others to fill you in about any information that would help give more context to any of the three viewpoint levels. Example questions for each level: 1) Have you run into any issues with the task you’ve been working on this week? 2) Are there any blockers right now for meeting our next milestone? 3) How is other project XYZ going?
Communicate frequently, empirically, and publicly
To ensure consistent communication among everyone involved, the DRI should consistently exemplify good communication habits. Changes to the project should always be communicated and progress should be shared consistently. Communication should always be started in or moved to a consistent location that is publicly accessible by everyone. All discussions should focus on empirical evidence prior to subjective thoughts, meaning that facts and observations should take precedence over personal opinions. There will be circumstances where the DRI will not be able to keep communication siloed in the same place, such as sending a formal, weekly recap of progress to managers, executives, or clients. In those cases it is vital to stay consistent in format and communication medium, and to limit the total number of different places where discussion about the project could occur.
- Create a channel of communication that is specific for the project. (For example: a project-specific Slack channel)
- Keep all of your updates, questions, discussions in that specific channel. Any explicit decisions that are made as a result of those discussions should be tracked in the shared document that has been created for the project.
- Politely redirect questions or comments to that channel when possible. An example of how to do this would be: “Is it ok if we move this conversation to the project channel so that everyone on the team can gain context?”
Take everyone’s opinions into account when making decisions
Although the DRI will be responsible for many of the decisions within a project, it is best to collaborate with team members to ensure decisions are made together and that those working on tasks have an opportunity to weigh in. A great way to do this is to ask questions about topics within the project. A simple “What do you think about ABC?” can often bring up many ideas that were not previously thought of. Thoughts from team members with expertise in specific areas should be considered more heavily when focusing in those areas. There will not always be consensus when discussing with others, and in those circumstances the DRI will be relied upon for guidance towards choosing the best option or coming up with the best compromise. Decision making is collaborative, but it won’t necessarily always be a democracy. What is most important is moving forward with the decision that will be best for the project, regardless of who thought of it.
- Determine which decisions require or would benefit from having others’ opinions. Some decisions are trivial and can be made quickly, and in those cases it is best to not take up your team members’ time. On the other hand when a decision has the potential for huge impact, it is often best to build consensus and make decisions together.
- For questions that are easy to understand, ask them asynchronously and supply ideas you have already thought about as possible options. Discussing the options you have already thought of can help encourage others to think “outside of the box” and consider other decisions that may be helpful or more effective. Asking questions asynchronously, such as in a Slack thread in a project specific channel, allows team members to take their time to come up with a thoughtful response and not feel on the spot.
- For difficult or complicated questions, plan a synchronous, topic-specific meeting. Plan a meeting with an agenda that outlines the specific questions and any other details that would be helpful. Divide your total meeting time roughly equally between your questions (relative to priority) and encourage everyone to stay on topic. (A timer can help with this greatly, but make sure you’ve told everyone at the start of the meeting that you’ll be using a timer to stay on track otherwise it may become an unexpected surprise).
Don’t Be Afraid of Failure
In closing, recognize that being the DRI for a project can be a scary task. The role comes with a great amount of responsibility. If you have moments of doubt or are not sure of what to do, remember that your goals for the project are shared between you, your team members, and your manager. Ask them for help when you need it. Mistakes are inevitable, and the best thing to do is acknowledge them, discuss them with your team, and learn from them so they are not repeated. Focus on consistent, steady progress so that even if there is a setback, you will always have the confidence to continue forward.
Thank you for reading and I hope you’re able to incorporate some of these practices into your own future projects. Please leave a comment about other tools, habits, and strategies that you’ve found beneficial when being a DRI.