by Ash Alhashim
–This entry is an altered version of an article I published on the Clarizen Blog in August 2012. You can access the original here. All views and opinions are my own.
In the business world, it's often said that execution is everything. What most commonly separates successful organizations from those that lag behind or, oftentimes those who fail altogether, are not great ideas, but great delivery. To be sure, a great idea or product can make you and your organization initially successful. However, without solid execution, you will find yourself climbing up a proverbial mudslide of operational and competitive challenges, where eventual failure is all but certain. Without naming names, one does not have to search far in Silicon Valley to find evidence of tech giants getting upstaged by small, no-name competitors who outperform them in just about every measure.
If it's accepted that great execution is critical for business success, the follow-up question becomes, “How do I ensure great execution in my organization?” To find our answer, let us look at a Silicon Valley great that defies the concept of “large organization = ineffective organization”, and not coincidentally, one of the wealthiest and most profitable companies in the world. Apple.
Particularly for a company of its size, Apple is exceptionally agile and mind-bogglingly effective at execution. The agility and efficiencies that characterize it are no doubt due to a wide variety of factors ranging from lean principles, to innovative management, to effective hiring. But a key characteristic that has been credited for a large portion of its tremendous success, are often traced back to one specific distinction for how things work in Cupertino: Apple holds individuals responsible for each and every action item that exists.
This concept is such a staple of its culture, that Apple even has an acronym for it: DRI, which stands for “directly responsible individual”. In Adam Lashinsky’s book, “Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works,” he explores this concept, as well as others, in detail. What he finds is that Apple’s success is largely due to its ability to know who is working on what tasks, and who will be “called on the carpet if something isn’t done right…”
When shown in this perhaps negative light, this framework can initially sound harsh and unforgiving. However, keep in mind that the opposite story also holds: When ideas, projects, or strategies succeed, the DRI is rewarded for his or her work in a way that motivates employees far better than financial incentives. In Frederick Herzberg’s timeless “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees,” he elaborates as to how intrinsically motivating employees in such a fashion leads to much longer term job enrichment and organizational success than attempting to motivate by affecting hygiene (also dubbed “extrinsic”) factors such as pay or work hours.
Also, it’s not just executives who need to know who is accountable for action items: one of the biggest reasons for poor execution in an organization is that individuals are often not aware of what they are responsible for themselves! In a 2008 article published by Harvard Business Review, titled “The Secrets to Successful Strategy Execution,” Gary Nielson et al write about a company they examined that had all the familiar symptoms of an inefficient, bureaucratic monolith struggling with execution due to lack of accountability:
“Managers didn’t have a clear sense of their respective roles and responsibilities. They did not intuitively understand which decisions were theirs to make. Moreover, the link between performance and rewards was weak. This was a company long on micromanaging and second-guessing, and short on accountability. Middle managers spent 40% of their time justifying and reporting upward or questioning the tactical decisions of their direct reports.”
So, great, the notion of the DRI sounds solid. According to the evidence presented, it seems logical to assume that holding individuals accountable for executable items is a good thing. The problem though, is that it is much harder to apply this concept in practice.
Oftentimes, management is disengaged from the processes that are happening on the ground floor, and processes that allow accountability to be enforced are not put in place. Holding individuals accountable is not an easy “one-time-fix,” but rather, an ongoing management challenge. And the question remains, how do we address this problem exactly? Certainly not through micromanagement, which is not only terribly inefficient, but also leaves employees disgruntled and oftentimes less motivated than before.
The good news is that we live in a time where tools exist that allow management to remain engaged in the execution framework, as well as understand what action items they are responsible for at any given time. A decade into the Web 2.0 world, collaborative tools exist that allow transparency in across teams and groups, and help facilitate communication much more effectively than through the antiquated “spreadsheets and status meetings” model. Tools such as Clarizen, Asana, and Salesforce do a fantastic job of creating transparency around responsibility and fostering collaborative cultures within organizations.
If you're not already using a collaboration tool in your organization, we highly recommend it. Slack and Asana are two of our favorites for communicating, collaborating and tracking performance against initiatives. Depending on the size of your organization, these may be the right tools for the job, and they may not be. If you're interested in evaluating tools that boost productivity and collaboration, we can help. Fill out a contact request form here, or shoot us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.