One thing high-performance teams do well is distribute authority — they have a clear system that specifies how decisions are made, and it enables the team to move quickly.

Does making a small copy change require approval from five people? Or do processes exist that empower a single person to make a change and ship it? While it seems clear that a single person should make such a change, it’s tougher than you’d think to design a company that operates this way at scale. Why is that?

The short and simple answer is that the team either lacks a decision-making framework, or the framework is designed to concentrate decision-making power among a select few. Without a system in place that clearly distributes decision-making authority in your company, projects will move slowly, people won’t be able to do their best work, and innovation will stagnate.

One well-known decision-making framework is the RACI model, or “responsibility assignment matrix,” which is used to identify roles and responsibilities associated with a project or business area. The RACI acronym represents four clearly defined roles that stakeholders typically play:

Responsible (also Recommender) Those who do the work to complete the task.
Accountable (also Approver or final approving authority) The one ultimately answerable for the completion of the deliverable or task; the one who ensures the prerequisites of the task are met and who delegates the work to those responsible. Accountable must sign off on any work that Responsible provides. There is only one Accountable specified for each task or deliverable.
Consulted (sometimes Consultant or counsel) Subject matter experts whose opinions are sought and with whom there is two-way communication.
Informed (also Informee) Those who are kept up-to-date on progress, often only upon completion of the task or deliverable, and with whom there is one-way communication.

Conceptually the RACI model made sense, but we had two challenges with it:

  1. It’s easy to forget because the order doesn’t reflect the hierarchy (“final approver” is second for some reason).
  2. It didn’t seem to clearly account for the people doing the work and what decisions they could own as individual contributors.

It turns out we weren’t the only ones who had challenges with the acronym itself — there are more than a dozen alternatives to RACI! But what’s valuable is the concept: a system that clearly defines who can make what decisions, so projects can move quickly, people can do their best work, and innovation can thrive.

Meet ARPA, an alternative to the RACI model

Our RACI matrix-inspired acronym is ARPA, which stands for Accountable, Responsible, Participant, and Advisor. Like RACI, it can apply to a single project or strategic area of the business. This is how it breaks down:

Accountable The person who is accountable to the business (in some cases the board) for success. Strategic decisions related to the project or initiative are made by this person.
Responsible One or two people who are responsible for day-to-day execution, making sure the work gets done within project constraints and meets our standards of excellence. Tactical decisions related to the project or initiative are made by these folks.
Participant People who allocate time and resources to support the project’s delivery, but for whom the project is not a primary role or responsibility. They make decisions related to the quality of the work, but they otherwise look to the Responsible or Accountable party for direction.
Advisor People who are consulted on one or more aspects, but they have no decision-making authority.

Every time we kick off a product feature, make a new hire, or need to make an important decision, we write out an ARPA. It helps each stakeholder understand their role and what decisions they own (if any). It’s especially helpful for executives to see it when they are an Advisor and can’t make any decisions!

An example of the ARPA decision-making framework in action

Let’s look at an example, shall we? Say we’re launching a new product called Messages (hint: we did!). This is how the ARPA breaks down:

Accountable
Ben
Ben, from our Product team, owns the success of the launch. It’s a big, multi-faceted project, and ultimately he’s accountable for shipping a product our customers love. He isn’t writing emails or blog posts, but he guides the overarching strategy of the project.
Responsible
Justine
Justine, from our Marketing team, is responsible for the execution of the launch. She maps out a communication plan, wrangles all of the right folks to contribute, and carefully plans out the timeline and execution of each detail. All of the day-to-day tactical decisions are hers to make.
Participant
Julie
Jessica
Eli
This group often depends on the breadth of the project or business area. For the Messages launch, it was quite large. I won’t list all of the names here, but Julie worked with the Engineering team to test and ship the feature, Jessica wrote many of the communications, and Eli split up the various marketing cohorts and set up reporting for the campaign. Many other folks played supporting roles.
Advisor
Nick
Ben gets to choose any number of other folks to be part of the process and offer additional insight. They can’t make any decisions, but they can offer context, share an opinion, or help out if asked. For this project, I was the only Advisor. Since there were already a lot of participants, we tried to keep Advisors to a minimum.

Messages

Messages let you send targeted messages to people on your website — be helpful while keeping your customers in the flow!

content-image

Participants make a lot of tactical decisions related to the quality of the work, but ultimately the Responsible person (Justine) could ask them to go a different direction. That wouldn’t happen often, but it shows the importance of clarifying the roles upfront.

You might think the ARPA model seems obvious, but I’ve found that giving everyone clarity about their role makes all the difference.

Whenever we find ourselves dependent on consensus or unclear about roles in a decision or area of the business, the first thing we do is create an ARPA.

Within five minutes, everyone has clarity around the role they need to play.

ARPA and leadership

You might think that as CEO, I’d have the authority to make decisions related to a product launch — but that’s only true in cases where I’m the Accountable stakeholder. In the above example, I’m an Advisor. Being in the Advisor role is a constant (and necessary, in my case) reminder that I have no decision-making authority. My job is to support my teammates. If I overstep my role, it creates mistrust on the team and makes people feel less ownership.

One thing I’ve found to be helpful is to remind people of the ARPA role I play when asked for an opinion. Since I’m the CEO, people sometimes assume I’m the decision-maker when I’m not. In fact, my job is to delegate as many decisions as possible to people who are more qualified to make them. So I’ll say, “To be clear, I’m an Advisor in this area and it’s not my decision to make.” If it’s appropriate for me to give an opinion at that point, I’ll do so.

So have I ever disagreed with the Accountable person? I disagree with a decision at least every one or two weeks, and that’s precisely how we know the system is working. If I’m honest, I’m probably wrong more than I’m right when I disagree with a decision. We’ve made someone else Accountable because they are more qualified to make the decision in the first place, and I have to trust that.

A clear system for distributing decision-making

“Distribute Authority” has been one of Help Scout’s organizational principles for many years. Consensus is the enemy of progress, and while thoughtful discussion and debate are highly encouraged, most decisions should be made by one or two people. If further consensus is required, we know there’s a problem.

As the team grows, though (we’re now over 100 people), those principles need to be backed by clear systems and processes so they can operate at scale. Without a proper decision-making framework for everyone to follow, consensus will find a way to infiltrate your organization.

When you build a system that works, gone are the days of waiting for sign-offs, marginalizing what your team is capable of, and inhibiting innovation. ARPA has proven to be an important tool at Help Scout. Feel free to use it, or make it your own with a different acronym and different definitions. What’s most important is that you develop a system that distributes decision-making authority and clarifies stakeholder roles — it’s critical to the success of any growing business.

Nick Francis

Nick Francis

Nick is co-founder and CEO of Help Scout, where he is on a mission to make every customer service interaction a more human one. He lives and breathes product design, customer experience, and building a thoughtful, thriving company.