The majority of the business world today operates in a triangular bureaucracy model. Most people start at the bottom and gradually work their way to the top, climbing the corporate ladder until finally reaching the ultimate goal. CEO status.
Reaching CEO status is the ultimate achievement for many people, but sadly often for the wrong reasons. A lot of people in managerial and higher positions aren’t there because of an inherent desire to serve. Rather, they are in search of the freedom, control, and recognition that come with the role. A deep desire for ownership is at the heart of leadership.
But what if you can have ownership and autonomy without being the leader of the pack?
The software development industry asked this same question after realizing that the traditional management models simply don’t work anymore. Knowledge workers inherently need to have decision-making power and authority in their domain for it to work. If teams have to permanently ask for permission or wait for consensus from all the stakeholders, the software will never ship.
And that’s exactly what happened, which is why the agile manifesto was born.
Small is Beautiful
At the heart of being agile is small, self-organizing teams. In agile teams, work is not assigned to anyone, rather, the business presents what needs to be done, selling it to the team. The team, in turn, picks what they feel they can commit to, based on the time and skills available. Managers don’t tell the team how to deliver, the teams themselves decide how best to get results and which tools they need to get the job done.
Suddenly, autonomy and ownership become center stage for all teams within the organization, not only at management or C-levels.
Sooner or later the traditional organizational structure starts crumbling and with that, the silos. A restructure and/or reorganization becomes necessary as Jason Bloomberg points out in his post on digital transformations.
An agile transformation requires the decision-making power to be balanced and shared among everyone in the organization. If your agile transformation doesn’t demand a restructure at some stage during the journey, you’re probably doing it wrong.
Ownership and Autonomy
Once you’ve settled on a shared ownership model, the rewards by far outweigh the hardships you had to endure to get there. But to get there, the first step is to look at what ownership is and is not.
In a previous post, I spoke about the skills needed to work as an autonomous team, of which respect and honest communication are at the core of successful autonomy within a team. In this post, I want to look deeper into ownership, and how it relates to autonomy.
There Can Be Only One. Or Can There?
Ownership is a very misunderstood concept, especially when viewed through the eyes of a bureaucratic organization, where it is believed that only one person can have decision-making power.
What if there doesn’t have to be just one decision maker? What if better decisions can be made the more people contribute to the solution?
Various studies in the field of organizational change have indicated that participation is a key factor in determining the success or failure of any change initiative. It thus makes sense that shared ownership is an important aspect of any form of transformation.
The only unanswered question that remains is how do we do it? A follow-up post will look at how to do it, but first, let’s look at shared ownership.
Shared Ownership Defined
Based on empirical evidence, or rather heuristic techniques, of both successful and, failed agile transformations, here is what I see shared ownership involves.
1. Shared Ownership Can’t Exist Without a Shared Purpose
For shared ownership to exist, it has to start with a shared vision or purpose. It’s not enough to simply follow the rules as the leader envisions them. Shared ownership requires the involvement and engagement of each and every team member.
Much like a rugby team, each player needs to be clear on the vision and believe in it for the team to succeed. A rugby team can’t win when each player has their own personal agenda. For the team to win the game, they need to work together as one.
When a work team believes in a shared vision, each person inherently has a sense of ownership, regardless of their role in the organization. The roles suddenly become a practical arrangement rather than a race to be the “one”.
2. Shared Ownership is Not Mutually Exclusive
Ownership is not the same as authority. When you “own“ a specific knowledge area or work area, it doesn’t mean that you are the sole decision-maker.
It’s more like a choir than a solo artist. The more members in the choir, the richer and more beautiful the experience becomes. Even when there are a few talented solo artists, they know when to blend in with the rest of the choir and when to stand out and sing along.
Results and progress are more important than one individual. There is not one authority figure who is responsible for all the answers, rather, it depends on the question. Sometimes you need the soloist and at other times more bass and tenors. Each person in the choir is equally important for the end product to be a masterpiece.
3. Ownership is Not the Same as Belonging
When you own a knowledge- or work area, it doesn’t mean that you make all the decisions and can do with it as you please. It means that you are responsible for ensuring the well-being of that area.
Much like having a child, you don’t own him, but you are responsible for taking care of him. Your main responsibility as a parent is to help him fulfill his potential. At times, it might mean that you have to leave your precious child in the care of someone else.
Shared ownership similarly requires that you have the best interest of the domain you “own” at heart. You know when you need to ask for assistance and you know when to entrust it to another team or give it up totally.
4. Shared Ownership Requires Voluntary Role Distribution
Probably the hardest part of transitioning to shared ownership involves the distribution process of decision-making between team members. It means that what the leader has worked for so hard he now has to willingly give up to the team members.
It also means that the leader has to look on while team members not yet ready for a specific role make mistakes as they grow into that role. It’s hard for the team members, and even harder for the leaders of the organization.
Going back to the metaphor of a child, shared ownership and role distribution can be compared to watching your child’s independence increase as they grow up. Sometimes it is easy and welcomes to allow them new freedom, other times it is hard to watch your child make mistakes and get hurt.
But any loving parent realizes that they can’t hold on forever and by letting go they are empowering their child. The same is true with shared ownership. When the leader lets go of his responsibilities and shares them with his team, he is empowering people. He now moves into a mentoring and coaching role with the goal to enable and empower, not control and demand.
5. Ownership Includes Both the Good and the Bad
With shared ownership comes shared responsibility. Team members often rush to volunteer to take over responsibilities, not realizing that they are now the ones to blame when things don’t go as planned. It’s no longer acceptable to sit back while the manager takes all the responsibility for what went wrong.
When you own a dog you don’t only enjoy outdoor walks and playtime. You also clean up after your dog, wash and groom it regularly and ensure he is looked after when you are away.
Ownership requires that you take responsibility for both sides of the coin – the good and the bad.
Shared ownership is a crucial element for any business to thrive in the digital age. It calls for personal leadership where each person in the team takes equal responsibility and works towards a shared goal.
Be sure to read my next post on the topic where I will be discussing how to distribute ownership during a transition.
With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.