Fostering Apple’s culture of accountability – the DRI

steve jobs

I came across the acronym DRI in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Which is fitting, as it seems that Jobs invented the simple concept of the Directly Responsible Individual.

The need for the DRI  came out of the need to foster a culture of accountability within teams. Product managers have a lot of responsibility, but little authority. And I should know, I started my career in the technology industry as Product Manager for VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, invented by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. And it wasn’t too long before I was replacing myself and hiring product managers for Software Arts other products, such as TK!Solver a tool to solve simultaneous equations. At least when I was managing Product Managers it was very clear who the DRI was!

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 DRI has responsibility for a particular task until its completion.

Here’s examples of how a DRI works from Matthew Mamet’s Medium post, Directly Responsible Individuals;

  1. DRIs are very careful when sending email in the use of the To: vs. CC:fields  DRIs are on the To: list. Everyone else is CC’d.
  2. When receiving email DRIs tend to ask themselves if they are the DRI or is someone else responsible?
  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.

DRIs avoid the dependencies on manager to tell the team what to do, which increases the reliance on the team to self-organize around the DRI and know how to proceed.

The answer to the Quora question How Well Does Apple’s Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) Model Work In Practice? provides more insight into the need for and the role of the DRI in engineering companies. Read the full article for the text that fleshes out each bullet point.

  • When solving a complex, cross-functional engineering issue, you want a DRI who is responsible for driving the team’s sleuthing until the issue is solved.
  • When it’s unclear who’s got the ball and what should be happening, everyone trusts that the DRI is driving.
  • When everyone knows that something is important, but no one feels like it’s their responsibility to see it all the way through.

DRIs are efficient because you don’t have multiple people all worried about the same things. The writer, Gloria Lin, a product manager at Flipboard, is a big fan of the DRI model:

It’s one of the most valuable, practical things I learned at Apple, and it’s a tool we use at Flipboard when it seems helpful.

… it helps to have a single DRI to call out an important piece of the big-picture we’re missing, to drive something to completion, and to be responsible for strategic decisions along with our CEO.

I’ve yet to meet an MIT VMS or Sandbox team that knows what the term DRI means. If that’s all they learn from their mentoring session with me then I’ve done my job for that day.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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