Compass CEO Robert Reffkin realized he had a problem as his company expanded.
In a post this week for the Harvard Business Review, Reffkin recalled how his company was trying to negotiate a deal with another firm. But when he asked leaders from two of his own departments about progress on the deal, he was met with “a brief silence.”
“As it turned out, each of them thought that the other person was going to answer,” Reffkin wrote.
The moment highlighted to Reffkin the need for a better, clearer approach to getting projects done. And the result is a management practice Compass now calls “Single Point of Accountability,” or SPOA.
The basic gist of SPOA is that whenever there’s a project that requires communication between departments, Compass assigns a person to serve as the SPOA. That makes the person responsible for driving the project forward, “clearing blockers, clarifying confusion, delegating tasks, and solving problems,” according to Reffkin.
“Of course, they don’t have to do the entire project themselves — but they do need to make sure it gets done and that everyone’s responsibilities are clear,” he added.
So for example, if that deal with another company had had a SPOA, Reffkin wouldn’t have been greeted with silence. Instead, both employees would have known exactly what their responsibilities were, where the buck stopped and who was supposed to step up and give the boss updates.
Reffkin is clear in his post that a SPOA is not a project manager. Nor is it a permanent or long-term role.
Instead, it’s a temporary assignment focused around a specific project. For instance, Reffkin recalls in the post Compass’ first earnings report after going public. The company realized at the time that it lacked experience with earnings reports, and so appointed its head of investor relations to serve as the SPOA on the report and make sure the project moved along. That person then appointed “sub-SPOAs for each key metric we had to report,” Reffkin wrote.
Reffkin ultimately compares the SPOA approach to other management techniques, but says that in the end it’s “simpler and clearer, which makes it more likely the practice will spread organically through your organization.”
The approach clearly appears to be working for Compass. The brokerage has managed to grow rapidly in recent years, in part by aggressively recruiting agents and in part by acquiring other brokerages and technology firms. That rapid expansion has earned Compass both fans and detractors, and made it perennially one of the most-talked-about companies in real estate.
In any case, in order to succeed companies should approach the SPOA method with a few key practices in mind. First, Reffkin suggests that both new and cross-team projects need a SPOA to make sure they get done. Second, he argues SPOAs must have the authority to make progress.
“In too many contexts, project managers lack the influence they need to hit deadlines and drive results,” Reffkin continues in the post. “To succeed, a SPOA needs to be able to assign work to collaborators over whom they have no managerial authority and to request resources from management to stay on track.”
Finally, SPOAs need to be good at communication and they need to be appointed early on, before a project gets mired down.
Reffkin’s point is ultimately that collaboration “is vital to progress.”
“But it’s difficult for even the most collaborative people to work together effectively if they don’t understand who’s ultimately accountable,” he concludes in the post. “The Single Point of Accountability approach accelerates progress, reduces confusion, and facilitates efficient collaboration.”