by Steve Cooper

Taking ownership: an amplifier to success

Jun 11, 2018
IT Leadership

The catalyst to transform project management and outcomes starts with owning what you do.

An oft-neglected factor in project success is ownership.  That amorphous and ethereal quality that separates those who care deeply from those who are following orders.  As the saying goes, with any bacon and egg breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.  When a team takes ownership of its product, magic happens.  Urgency and energy increase, collaboration occurs, and pride skyrockets.  So how can leaders create environments where ownership – true ownership and not simply legal or material ownership – takes root?

Recently, I needed some outdoor piping re-plumbed, and I had a malfunctioning ceiling fan switch.  Using my self-bestowed scheduling genius, I took advantage of this nexus of needs by scheduling both these appointments (electrician + plumber) for the same day.  As I reveled in my deft scheduling prowess, I had no idea I was about to be schooled with a vivid leadership lesson.

Before we explore that, here’s some background

Early in my career, my colleagues and I would leave work after our typical 11-13-hour workday, and we’d sit in our cars in the parking lot of Nell’s Diner (Arlington, Va.) late into the usually sweltering DC-area summer evening.  What were we doing?  Lamenting how much better our world would be if we ran it.  “If this was our project, we know exactly what we’d do.”  We were all employees of a large consulting firm, working our tails off to build an application for the client (and our bosses).  We knew we had all the answers if only someone recognized the compelling need to thrust the ship’s helm into the hands of us 20-somethings.  They didn’t.  So, on we bellyached into the silent, starry night, sitting in our cars, letting the swampy Arlington air waft over the hot gravel.  Of course, this was long after Nell herself had closed her trailer-shell lunchtime diner for the day.

A few years after that, my colleagues and I did grab the helm.  We started our own consulting firm, and in the decades since, I’ve led technology and consulting firms and seen many successful projects (and some not so successful).  Decoding what factors lead to success still fascinates me, although it still appears more art than science, and more elusive than formulaic.  My humbler side imagines that some new generation of employees now grinds axes in a similar parking lot, wishing for the moment that I yield my decisions to their wiser grip.

Back to present day

The electricians arrived first.  I revealed the problem, being careful not to provide any uninformed, amateur diagnosis that might damage our vulnerable, newborn relationship: “The ceiling fan worked last year with this wall switch, and now it doesn’t.  And we’ve never had or used a remote control with this fan.”  The next 45 minutes would prove arduous for me and would test my patience since I desperately craved for them to own the problem, as if it were their home.  In fact, I even used those words: “If this was your house, what would you do?”  They repeatedly insisted that the fan would only work with a handheld remote control, and the absence of one meant they could do nothing more.  I envisioned them testing the voltage on my switch, analyzing where the current flow stopped, and hacking a solution that would return A/C power to the fan motor.  Even if they were right about the remote control, a slightly creative electrician could bypass the remote receiver to get the fan spinning.  That breakthrough never occurred, despite my best attempts to charm, cajole, and use creative body language to spontaneously generate this desired behavior.   They departed our home leaving two things: a service call invoice, and a burning, frustrated ember inside me that only a cool breeze from the heavens could extinguish.

Enter the plumbing crew.  My outdoor hose spigot needed to feed two remote water pipes, plus the hose itself.  Over the years, I had engineered a hose junction system that always dripped (slowly) and resembled the “Warning Will Robinson” robot from Lost in Space.  (Later generations: please reference the “Noo-noo” from Teletubbies.)  Undaunted from the electrician experience only minutes earlier, I again followed my familiar (but unproven) tactic, revealing the problem without proposing a solution.  After several minutes of sizing up the situation, and them trying to get me to tell them what valves and fittings I wanted, I asked them the same question: “If this was your house, what would you do?”  The metamorphosis I had so desperately sought with the electricians sparked to life in the plumber duo: they immediately began devising, engineering, collaborating, and sketching.  My soul soared as I saw the light bulb of ownership begin to glow, first faintly then blindingly unmistakable!  They had taken ownership of this project, and the pride they now took in this project gushed with the throughput of a thousand faucets.  After several consultations with one another and more answers from me about how we used the water, they had devised a solution that was far superior to any that I could have imagined.  And after installation, it works perfectly – no drips, elegant appearance, confident control, and full winterization ease.  

What spurs a team to take ownership of its own solution?  And how can leaders increase the chances of igniting this powerful spark? 

Here are some tips designed to make the elusive more formulaic

  • Focus on why, not how: Ban micromanagement. Everyone says they hate micromanagement, but it’s rampant.  This is because telling someone how to do something is an easy shortcut, instead of giving them a problem or goal, and telling them what you expect of them. 
  • Hire people who inherently take pride in everything. Having a skill is less important than taking pride in what you make and do.  And yet most interviews focus primarily on skills.  People who take pride in their work product aren’t afraid to own a solution.  Unfortunately, my electrician crew didn’t take pride in their work (at least that day they didn’t).
  • Don’t take returns. The plumbers tried a few times to return the solution back to me, but I refused to take it.  Problems are never easy.  (All the easy ones have already been solved.)  So, teams frequently seek the safety of egging their leader to engineer a solution to escape the risk of failure.  Stick to the overall purpose and constraints, and don’t get lured into prescribing a solution that someone else will inherit.
  • Speak the mantra: “If this was your problem, how would you solve it?” Then show them it really is their problem.
  • Ownership is transforming. The absence of it leads to a gravel parking lot full of demoralized team members.  Flip the switch to let your teams genuinely own their solution, and you’ll soon feel the cool breeze of success.