Today's hammer: roles. If you're working with more than one person, somehow we've got to split the work. Let's just agree for the sake of this post that micromanagement isn't the goal. Understanding roles is a perennial issue, but especially as a company scales and small-group communication breaks down it becomes more and more of an issue. Smart people have been thinking about this for a while, and came up with a simple model that I've found useful in conversation recently called the RACI matrix.


  • Responsible. The people who do the actual work.
  • Accountable. The one person on the hook. “The Decider” as Bush II puts it.
  • Consulted. Opinion contributors.
  • Informed. One way updates.

Example: Heroku's new website.

  • Responsible: The team who did the work. In this case, MaxShanleyD. Keith Robinson, and more.
  • Accountable. Max in this case. Final call on what is in, out, when it was ready to ship, not.
  • Consulted. Oren (me). I provided some guidance, some questions to think about, and tried to help stay out of the way.
  • Informed. Basically all of Heroku, both up the management chain and across the org.

This was a case where the roles where clear, and the team worked together great. All too often, roles are less clear causing major issues. The primary confusion I've seen is between Responsible and Accountable. Usually the person responsible also thinks they are accountable. Worse, everyone else around thinksthey are the accountable person, and the next think you know we have a nasty case of WWIC (don't confuse the consulted here with the consulted in the RACI model. It's a good article, go read it!).

So who is accountable? Accountable is not tied to rank in the organization. For the most part the more senior an individual, the less areas they should be accountable on, and the more they should be consulting. That isn't to say that an executive can't be accountable - there are projects that demand executive final say on. The accountable person is the person with the final call. It can be an individual, a manager. The main requirement is the person must have the capability to understand the trade-offs, know the limits, and know when they can be broken. They must work with the responsible team to build something great.

Let's look at some concrete examples of dysfunctions that can arise from not having a clear set of RACI roles laid out:

  • Jane is accountable for the office seating. Jane is also doing the work to assign people's locations. Jane's manager Eva thinks she is accountable one, and keeps second guessing and providing conflicting information.
  • Ryan is responsible for the new web site, and also thinks he's accountable. His manager Jill is accountable. Ryan strongly disagrees with some of the calls Jill is making and doesn't understand why he doesn't “just own the web site”.
  • VP Olivia is informed on a new product. Joe is accountable. A whole team is responsible. Olivia gets frustrated that no one is listening to her genius ideas and threatens to take control.

In all of these situations having a discussion on who exactly is the R, A, C, and I, and what that means can lead to a huge step forward. Sometimes the conversations are deeply uncomfortable; that points to a disconnect that isn't going away by ignoring it!

How does this relate to the chain of management? Managers always have veto power. But using it is the worst form of power available. When a manager vetoes someone's work, especially the Accountable role, that manager is destroying the very structure that allows us to work. Sometimes it's necessary, if something is really going down the wrong path, but it should be the absolute last choice. Exercising that overt power destroys morale, team cohesion, and frankly is lame. But that's a topic for it's own post.

If you are finding yourself frustrated with someone at work, chances are good that it's because you don't know the roles you are each playing. Feeling like you are getting stepped on, that others are butting into your business, that there are too many chefs in the kitchen, no room to breathe, are all signs of role confusion. Sit down, talk it over with your team, and clear the air.