Rethinking the org chart: Areas of Responsibility (AoRs)

This article is part of a series of spotlights on how we work at Asana.

At Asana, we value transparency, balance, and working together as peers, and we have crafted a management culture that reflects these values.

Our approach gives people the freedom they need to contribute at their full potential, while also providing the right structure and support to help people grow and reach their professional and personal goals. One way we do this is by distributing responsibility across the team via areas of responsibility (as opposed to centralizing it with managers), or AoRs, an approach inspired by Apple’s Directly Responsible Individual (DRI) principle.

Goals: Why AoRs

Here are few reasons we implemented AoRs at Asana, which will help you decide if AoRs are right for your organization:

  • Designate accountability for each area of the organization to ensure everything that needs to happen in the company does.
  • Give team members who aren’t in direct management roles opportunities to grow as leaders and to own important areas (even as new hires).
  • Facilitate the most knowledgeable person triaging problems.
  • Encourage someone to develop deep knowledge around every important area, which helps grow your organization’s cumulative knowledge.
  • Help illuminate where you have staffing gaps that you should recruit for.
  • Scale managers further by giving them a tool to delegate and decrease operational work.
  • Provide an alternative to traditional centralization and hierarchical organization of responsibility.
  • Empower everyone on your team to change aspects of your process or environment.
  • Encourage transparent distribution of knowledge to avoid silos of work.
  • Give teammates credit for good work they do unrelated to specific projects, or functional areas.
  • Encourage and support behaviors and work that don’t fit into the existing program structure.

How it works: in practice

This approach to distributing responsibilities means teammates are not always routing requests through a managerial hierarchy and don’t feel the common bottlenecks of traditional management.

At Asana, AoR owners are responsible for:

  • Ensuring the AoR is clearly defined.
  • Being the Directly Responsible Individual for this area, according to the definition you and your team have established.
  • Maintaining knowledge around relevant subjects and document as needed.
  • Becoming an expert, and proactively educating their team as appropriate.
  • Being the first point of contact for new issues or questions.
  • Being the final decision maker and coordinate with other AoR owners when there is overlapping responsibility.
  • Regularly evaluating how well your AoR is being addressed by the company.
  • Directly handling small issues related to your AoR as they come up.
  • Speaking up if further attention is needed beyond their capabilities. Owning an AoR does not mean the individual needs to do all the work themselves.
  • Creating a coverage plan (if needed) for when they’re unavailable.

It’s important to maintain AoRs in an Asana project so each team member knows exactly who to reach out to for a specific need, or when they need clarity around company structure.

Implementation: Creating, defining, and transferring AoRs

Creating AoRs

Most often, AoRs are created by leads and managers. Sometimes, they are created more organically. For example, if a team member generates energy around a topic.

Other times, AoRs are created reactively. It’s a good idea to consider creating an AoR when something comes up and you don’t know who to turn to (e.g. a new class of bug).

If you believe an AoR needs to be created, you can:

  • Add it and loop in appropriate stakeholders.
  • Discuss with your manager.
  • Discuss with a peer(s).

It can sometimes feel scary to add an AoR, but as long as everyone does so from an egoless place, you can rest assured that mistakes are easily undone.

Defining the Responsibility

Once a new AoR has been established, it is very important to make sure your team has clarity on what it means, which is why that is the first responsibility of AoR owners.

Keep a bulleted list of responsibilities in an Asana task description

Giving someone a new or existing AoR

This should be considered for someone:

  • When they are doing most of the work around an existing AoR or one that should clearly exist.
  • When the company needs someone to own an AoR and they are the best person to own it.
  • When they become the defacto contact point for an area. Often, this is right when they join the company.
  • When they want to grow by owning responsibilities.
  • When they want them.

Transferring AoRs

Whenever you transfer an AoR, make sure to set aside time to get together and discuss the AoR to ensure a clean hand-off. Take the opportunity to document existing knowledge.

To ensure a smooth transfer:

  • Proactively communicate the change to individuals who may be interested in who the new owner is.
  • After a month or so, check in with the new AoR owner to confirm they have everything they need, and are succeeding.
  • Set the new owner up for success by having a period of time in which the owner-to-be is covering some of the responsibility or covers all of it while the primary is on vacation.
  • Consider better processes for knowledge sharing ahead of time.

Important AoRs could have secondary owners who are the default for when the primary is on vacation or when it needs to be handed off.

Growing with your team

The relationship between management and AoRs is fluid. Some AoRs expand into dedicated teams over time, and the AoR owner sometimes becomes the team’s manager. AoRs can be infinitely expanded and divided, based on the size and needs of the company, and their distribution among team members is encouraged.

Results and Benefits

A few benefits we’ve seen from running our company this way include:

  • Our organization is run more efficiently.
  • Priorities align, across teams.
  • Every team’s work is clearly connected to the goals of the company.
  • There’s clear differentiation of responsibility across the organization.
  • There is a clear decision-making authority for every decision.
  • For new hires, AoRs are helpful to get to know people and responsibilities, and understand where to route their questions.

Additionally, having AoRs provides an opportunity to establish new goals and practices that benefit all teammates and the company because they shed light on what’s working and what’s not, where growth or an expansion of responsibilities is needed, and when a realignment of responsibilities can create a more beneficial output.

Having a highly visible and flexible system allows people to feel ownership over responsibilities from day one at the company, grow into leadership roles, and have a transparent view of company structure and focus areas.

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