Photo by Kyle Glenn
"So who's got this one?", uttered the project manager while pointing at a woefully underthought user story on the screen. Disinterested engineers looked sheepishly around, lifting their heads just enough to avoid eye contact. This was common in planning meetings. Lack of interest and ownership would suppress the opinions each of the team members had.
Jake put his hands to his face and was on the edge of giving up and moving to Idaho, you know the whole working as a farmer thing seemed really appealing. He began to raise his hand to reluctantly grab the story when someone else spoke up.
"I'll take it; I'm unfamiliar with that part of the code." Sam said energetically.
Sam was always good like that; ready to take on any task or try anything new or old. She started her software development career just over a year ago and hadn't slowed down yet. Jake liked being around Sam. She glowed with excitement about everything to do software. She'd take hits and hard times just like everyone else, work on projects destined to fail, and pick up tasks that she knew she could automate. She recognized the value of being available and owning things.
Though Jake had been in the industry for close to 20 years everything about the what and how Sam did things made him want to be a better engineer. He wanted to behave more like her, be more excited like her, and be a catalyst for involvement just like she was. Jake took every opportunity to make sure he communicated how valuable Sam was both directly to her and to management.
Jake thought, "Why is she so different?" He even wondered, "Can engineering excellence be bottled somehow?" He decided to take some time to find out why Sam was so excited about software.
Jake stopped by Sam's desk. As he walked up he noticed how immaculate and magically fun it looked. "Another page from Sam's book that I could benefit from" he thought.
"Hey Sam, sorry to bother ya, do you have a minute to grab a cup of coffee?"
"Sure do", Sam replied clicking in the last few characters of her latest masterpiece.
"Solid!" Jake touted, "I wanted to ask you some questions around how you like to approach things. Things like why do you get so excited about writing software and so on."
She jokingly replied, "Awesome, maybe we can figure that out together"
This was yet another one of Sam's superpowers. She not only owned the software she wrote but she owned her character and worked hard to "refactor" it whenever possible.
They sat down in the sprawling co-work space, surrounded by comfy chairs and coolers filled with every flavor of La Croix water imaginable. That was the current "hip" thing. Jake thought in his best old guy comedic voice, "back in my day we drank the Kool-Aid, not this fancy water." He grinned at his own joke.
Sam was looking at him as he smiled and said, "that's why."
"That's why 'what'", Jake quizzed.
She smiled as though she knew Jake's joke and said, "That's why I get excited about writing software; it makes me smile."
At this point Jake knew this conversation was going to get good - "...really, good", he thought. He searched around for a spot where it was safe to talk a little loudly and with expression. They both loved to talk with their hands and tended to get a little loud when talking about things they were excited about; this was one of the things Jake noticed about Sam when he interviewed her last year.
They sat down in a couple of multi colored chairs that swallowed each of them as they leaned back. "How cliché or perhaps ironic", Jake mused as he shook the confusion from his head, "We are sitting in a spot that some detached person 'designed' to build collaboration and culture to genuinely talk about those things." He decided that he would, in the future, judge the cliché of their office space a little less.
Jake continued the conversation, "I genuinely love working with you but I cannot always put my finger on why. I want to figure out the why so that we can propagate that out to the team; bottle it somehow." He was joking about the bottling it but wanted to get at what made working with her so fun.
Sam spoke in a humble and thoughtful tone, "I love to build things. I'm not the 'best' at it so I take every opportunity to learn and grow."
Jake new she was totally being genuine and he also knew she was "better" than she thought.
"There has to be more than that. Right? I...I mean you'll eventually get to the point where learning things is enjoyable yes but there would be fewer things to learn." Jake mindlessly replied. Later on after their conversation was long over Jake would come to realize how ridiculous he sounded because at that moment he was learning and growing.
"I hope not!", She exclaimed.
"Jake, I once went to a talk on culture, 'Nerd Life' something, and the guy talking said something like 'passion does not have to have a reason, it is its own reason.'" She took a beat to consider her next thought. "I know it sounds like a cat poster, but it made me think about how I wanted to see what I did. If I was going to do this software thing and spend a lot of time learning and building things why would I want to do it half-hearted."
"Listen Jake," she paused, "If we are not going to own the things we build then why are we building them?" Sam continued, "Things like feelings, making money, even desire will only take us so far so long - there has to be a bigger driver, a better purpose."
Jake crushed under the weight of this thought. He began remember how much creating things meant to him. He remembered how much fun it was to share those things. He remembered that owning the software he's part of was much more than just writing more of it or supporting it. In the following days Sam and Jake through caring, attitude, and deterring poisonous behaviors began to help reform other lost developers.
Soaking in their conversation, Jake milled on his new revelation: Sometimes owning software just means being available, caring about your craft, and getting others involved along the way.
Ownership, it ain't about possession
Ownership. Its one of those words where the true meaning goes well beyond the dictionary definition. In the world of words, it simply represents that something belongs to someone. It's almost a passive act. In the world of leadership and entrepreneurship, it means so much more.
True ownership isn't about whether a thing belongs to someone; it's about what the owner does to nurture and care for it. It's about the person and their actions, not possession.
It doesn't matter what you own or its value. Let me challenge you to do something. Take a drive around your town and really look around. Look at every house, every yard, every front sidewalk, every front door. Look at your neighborhood parks and gathering areas. Look on the side of the road.
I bet you'll see some modest homes that are extremely well tended and some huge homes that are out of control. Which person is showing true ownership? Which person do you think is leading a more fulfilled life?
What else do you see?
- Do you see someone weeding or planting flowers or cultivating a garden? That's ownership.
- Do you see someone going out of their way to clean up someone else's litter? That's ownership.
- Do you see someone sweeping a sidewalk? That's ownership.
Notice that many of those examples don't require possession. Possession may be nine-tenths of the law, but it's only a prerequisite to true ownership. True ownership is about owning the greater whole and taking accountability for it being great.
The importance of ownership
I would boldly assert that there is no product that people truly love that did not come from a place of strong ownership. Have you ever used a product and been delighted by something really simple? Something that just works the way that you think it should?
Steve Jobs famously said, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
You can do it complex. You can make things work by simply doing. But you're never going to move mountains. True ownership means sweating the details and caring about what you deliver. It means going above and beyond simply because you care and show a pride in what you do.
Again, it doesn't matter how big or how small it is. I love working with teams that deliver tools for internal customers because they can do small things that make their neighbors' lives just a little bit easier. These teams often show a high degree of ownership because they build a lot of empathy.
With true ownership, you can trust that your teams are going to do amazing things. Sure they'll make mistakes. They'll sometimes take a wrong path. But they'll always course correct because ownership requires that they keep making things better.
True ownership also means that teams and individuals will go above and beyond their explicit area of ownership. If you want an environment of "see something, say something" or better yet "see something, do something" then you need a culture of true ownership.
Why your team might not be demonstrating true ownership
If your team is not demonstrating true ownership, you must figure out why. Start by looking for signs of complacency. If there are aspects of your culture that are contributing to complacency, fix them. That's a first, important step.
Next, investigate how decisions are made in your organization. Top-down leadership is the antithesis of true ownership. The decision-makers by definition are the owners, so if individuals and teams aren't empowered to make decisions they can't own things. It's that simple.
Finally, you might be thinking that it's about the people. There are certainly some people who by nature don't demonstrate true ownership. If that's the case, you must do something about it. However, most people don't start out jaded or uncaring. Oftentimes the environment is the bigger contributor, so start there.
Don't try to fix it with process
I'm a process person by nature. I love to improve the way we do things to enable people to do their job more easily and more effectively. But there's a real danger wherein process kills true ownership. The danger is in making it about the process, not about the people.
People own things. Actual people. Don’t cede your ownership to a process. If it becomes about the process, you create a bureaucracy. You no longer own it; it owns you. Instead, look at process as an ownership enabler. If your process isn't making it easier for people to own their own progress, it's broken.
Trust me on this one. This is a mistake I've made in the past, and I see teams making it every day. For example, in many ways the rituals of agile software development can contribute to this. So many books talk about process and rituals and tools, or at least that's where people focus when they implement agile. If your first instinct when implementing agile is to schedule all the rituals and buy all the tools, take a deep breath and slow down. Instead, focus on the people and what those meetings and tools will mean to them. The rituals and tools aren't inherently bad, but they can be if they're the only focus.
Fostering a culture of true ownership
With a culture of true ownership, your team will make great things happen. True ownership requires four ingredients: clarity, autonomy, empathy, and ability.
It's important that teams know what exactly they own. In your own life, it's easy. You bought your house, so you own it (after you finish paying of course!). In a software organization, it's a bit harder. It requires understanding all your products and every logical component that make them up. It's important you carve up your entire inventory and ensure every part of it is owned by someone. Otherwise, it's owned by no one and things will fall through the cracks.
Once your products are mapped to teams, this is where ownership really begins. Teams should own their vision and mission, their strategy, their goals, their metrics, and their roadmaps. They should make sure what they are doing is aligned to the broader organization, but they should own it.
Which brings us to autonomy...
You can't have ownership without autonomy. Otherwise, teams won't be enabled to take the actions they need to take to nurture what they own. If they need to seek permission every time they want to make improvements, they'll gradually lose their motivation to do so. If they are told what to do, they'll immediately lose it.
When you relinquish control to a team, you are literally giving them ownership. Along with autonomy comes accountability. Now it's up to them to truly own it.
Which brings us to empathy...
The third ingredient is empathy. Empathy's a different kind of ingredient because it's a trait of the people on the team rather than a structural concern. However, it's just as important as clarity and autonomy. Empathy fosters ownership. It's really hard to not take action when you see actual people struggling with what you built. Empathy is a learned behavior, but it's very easily learned. Watch people use your product. Talk to them and listen to them. Follow the twitter feeds and your support channels. Read all the forums. If empathy doesn't already exist, it can be gained.
Which brings us to ability...
The final ingredient is ability. Before establishing clear lines of ownership, you need to ensure the owning team is able to own it. This may mean investing in their skills or in hiring more people to adequately own it. The good news is that teams that want to own things will figure out how to do so even if they don't possess the skills today. You just need to support them.
Ownership is great and all, but there are a couple of areas of caution worth mentioning.
First, as a reminder, ownership is not about possession. Therefore, the first caution is that ownership should never be about territorialism or politics. True ownership is something that spans teams and organizations. In a great culture, it's not about "mine" even though lines of ownership should be very clear. Ownership is about who is responsible for nurturing and fostering aproduct or an area, but everyone should be encouraged to make improvements that cross teams. Teams should consider the broader whole, which could mean helping others with what they own first. Remember the example of someone cleaning up another person's litter?
The second caution is that people who naturally demonstrate a lot of ownership will try to take on too much. You remember all those great examples of people caring for their homes and neighborhood? Personally, I'm not great at doing that because I regularly take on more than I can handle. It's better to own enough to be challenged but still be able to manage it. For organizations, this means that you should consider smaller more focused teams rather than teams that own tons of stuff.
The final caution is around collective or — shared — ownership, which is a model where everyone owns it together. This is a great theory based on the fact that everyone's part of a community and thus they should all be incentivized to make it better. You might even think it's a great idea after reading the first caution. In practice, though, I've witnessed it lead to one of two bad outcomes.
Outcome #1 is that collective ownership actually turns into zero ownership. People assume that someone else will make it better so they do the minimal required to meet their needs. That's not true ownership. It leads to frustration and poor results.
Outcome #2 is that you get too many cooks in the kitchen. With collective ownership, there is little vision or direction setting. This can lead to anarchy, mixed visions, multiple divergent approaches, and difficult-to-resolve conflict within the team because it's unclear who makes decisions. Like a rope being pulled in a round of tug-of-war, the software will show divergent approaches and goals and lead to a mess.
So to avoid the final caution, ensure that there is only one true owner for each of your product or services. If other teams want to propose changes via pull requests, then great! But the team that owns the product or service maintains responsibility.
True ownership isn't about possession. It's about taking accountability for making the things you own truly great. It is an act of nurture that can be cultivated in an organization, and the more ownership that teams demonstrate, the healthier the organization.
Nurture it. Foster it. Make it so.