The Benefits of Taking Ownership

My sister once lamented to me that her son took poor care of the car she and her husband bought for him, but once he bought his own car, he washed it all the time. When confronted with the fact, he acknowledged it saying, “Well, that was your car, this one is mine.” I think it is a simple fact of ownership, and a simple principal of managing people. The more someone has invested in a mission, the more they will own the results.

As an organization, we are studying and striving to promote greater ownership on the part of all team members. Our management team recently read Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin – two Navy SEALs who translate battlefield and SEAL training lessons into daily management strategies and techniques, and The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni’s book focuses on organizational health.

The interesting takeaway from reading a book about ownership and a book on organizational health was that organizational health is vital to promoting ownership at all levels. Lencioni offers that trust is the foundation of organizational health. Extreme Ownership lessons include the example that ownership requires trust in the mission. So, the challenge of management is to create a culture of trust and an offer of the ownership of the mission.

This sounds easy in principle, but for some, there is a natural resistance to it. For some, delegating ownership is sharing ownership, relinquishing some control, and most importantly, trusting in the outcome if they are not always at the helm. However, when you share ownership, you not only share the successes, but also the failures, challenges and problems.

I have never known any professional in business who doesn’t want to be known as someone who can solve a problem. A key accountability of management is solving problems. And, a key technique in solving complex problems is breaking them into smaller problems, that when resolved in a sequential and logical manner, solved the bigger problem. For example, if the problem is to get to the other side of the river, the solution is to build a bridge. In building a bridge, a wide range of problems will be encountered that need to be solved and implemented in a sequential manner. 

Giving someone a discreet task is menial. Giving someone the same task that solves a portion of the bigger problem is empowering them to think beyond the confines of the discreet task. It implies a trust in their capability to execute the assignment. Conversely, giving someone just the discreet task implies a lack of trust in their ability to grow beyond their current limitations.

When U.S. manufacturers were faced with growing competition in the 1970s and 80s, they instituted quality circles that were designed to capitalize on the knowledge and creativity of work teams who were strategically given ownership of their work. They were typically very successful if planned well, and if, for any other reason, there was a lot of low hanging fruit. But the lesson was learned by some. Everyone had something to contribute, especially if they were asked, if their opinion matters, if they know they can influence the outcome, and if they have ownership of the impact of the outcome.

The Lean Construction Institute promotes a process of project planning termed Pull Planning. Pull Planning engages the team members (those doing the actual work) in the planning and sequencing of the work. It is based on strong and vigorous collaboration and planning between all parties executing the work. The teams doing the work are self-directed and working toward a shared goal, in contrast to being directed on which work activity to do on which day. When they have ownership and buy-in of the goal, they are empowered to identify efficient and innovative solutions to the daily challenges on a complex construction site.

The result is a better job for all the parties.

The alternative offered by those who refuse or resist delegation of authority and sharing of ownership is simply a management style that does not optimize input from their team. It is self-limiting. Ultimately, it is uncompetitive.

So, think about it. What is your tendency? Do you promote ownership and delegate it? Or, do you hoard it? In any organization, there is a blend of those in management who vary on that continuum. But as Jocko Willink and Leif Babin said in Extreme Ownership, “It’s not what you preach that counts. It’s what you tolerate.”

“Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership. And a sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organization can have.”

Pat Summitt, Legendary Tennessee Women’s Basketball Coach

“Ownership: 'A commitment of the head, heart, and hands to fix the problem and never again affix the blame.”

John G. Miller