As people grow in their role in organizations or projects, they take on more ownership over larger issues. Ownership comes with both authority and more responsibility. This can be scary, especially when we’re put into the spotlight.

Ownership is easy when things go well, but we’re truly tested when things go poorly and we need to identify and fix a problem that happened on our watch. This post goes through common reactions to things-going-poorly that I’ve seen in practice, focusing on fail cases (1-6) and finishing with a success case (7).

We all fail at ownership in our career (I’ve personally done all of the first six fail cases). This is reasonable for anyone who stretches themselves and tries to grow. It’s only once we reach stage 7 that we’re ready for even more ownership over larger and more important work.

1. Unaware of the problem

“What problem? I’m doing the same thing as I’ve always done.”

You’re not measuring things well enough to actually know that things have changed that that a problem exists. You’re doing what you’ve always done, and what you’ve always done has historically been good enough, so you don’t see how there could be a problem today.

But the world around you changes, and you weren’t tracking the world. It’s not your fault that a problem occurred, but you do need to become aware of it and take ownership of it before you can improve things.

2. Silently Ignore the problem

“Can we cancel our regular meeting this month?”

You see the problem, feel bad about it, and so avoid speaking about it to anyone, especially your team and management. That would be really uncomfortable.

You hope that it goes away and that things get back to the way they were. You stop making regular reports to anyone and wait for things to get better.

3. Deflect attention and redefine your mandate

“Teammates Alice and Bob made 10 widgets today! I’m so proud of how hard they’re working!”

You see the problem, and feel bad about it, and don’t want it to reflect badly on you so you decide to change the game. You shift your mandate from “fix problems” to something else like “defend teams and territory”. This is especially common in folks familiar with fiefdom cultures at larger organizations.

You trumpet success even though things are flat or declining. You’re genuinely proud of your team so this feels honorable. However you’re setting your team up for failure when someone actually takes a look at performance. If you think that your primary mandate is to build a team rather than accomplish goals then you should verify that first with management.

4. Blame other people

“This isn’t my fault, this is Bob’s fault”

You publicly acknowledge that the problem exists, but you vigorously avoid it reflecting badly on you. You find anyone else around, ideally someone not on your team (but you sacrifice a teammate if necessary), and put the blame onto them.

This may work. It may even be true. However it misses the point that your job is to own and fix problems. Blame doesn’t matter. Your job as an owner is to own responsibility, not point it at others or even care whose fault it is.

Problems aren’t bad and don’t reflect badly on you. They’re inevitable. The question is if you’re the kind of person that can handle them or not.

5. Defer

“There is a problem, what should I do?”

You’re happy to manage a team when things are good and the path is clear, but when things are bad you quickly defer to other people. You’re not entirely confident that you know how to solve the problem and so you do not try, instead you put this on your manager to solve, saving you from looking foolish in front of your peers.

This is certainly better than making lots of bad decisions, but its also a sign that either you’re out of your depth, or aren’t willing to take chances and look foolish. In either case you probably shouldn’t be owning or managing at this level.

6. Charge ahead

“We had a problem and so I changed everything”

You’ve read the situations above and they just aren’t you. You take charge and fix things. You don’t want to bother with bureaucracy (you’re a do’er) and so you just go ahead and fix the darn thing. You’re the expert here and know best anyway.

While it may be true that you’re the most well-informed on this topic, you may not have the full picture. It’s great that you weren’t daunted by the problem or afraid of failure, but by charging ahead you may have broken something else that you weren’t aware of. It would have been better to let people know and have a chance to weigh in.

7. Effective ownership

“We have a problem. Here are some options for us to consider. I think we should choose option B, but there are tradeoffs. I’d like to hear some other perspectives”

You …

  • quickly become aware that the problem exists because you’ve set up active measurement
  • quickly inform your team and management of that problem
  • use your expertise to identify possible solutions to that problem
  • publicize those solutions, along with your (admittedly flawed) opinions about where the team should go
  • listen to feedback and engage in discourse
  • commit and execute after a group decision is made
  • report back on progress
  • check in in the future on how the fix is holding up

You put yourself out there by acknowledging the problem, and either take on all the blame yourself (“I should have seen this coming”) so that everyone around you feels safe and can engage with their full brain. You think about the problem and use the expertise that you have to propose some ideas. Those ideas might be bad, but at least having some ideas out there will make other people more comfortable speaking up. You sacrifice your pride and esteem so that the group can move forward faster.

Then, before charging ahead you ask for input because you acknowledge that you’re not omniscient. This doesn’t mean that you give up thought. You engage in rigorous discourse on the subject with the group. Eventually a decision is made and you commit to leading a fix for the problem.

When things go poorly with that fix (and they will) you speak up quickly to make sure people are aware of updated timelines and expectations.

After the fix is in place and you move on to other issues you still come back from time to time to check on that fix, even though it’s no longer your explicit responsibility. You feel a sense of ownership and responsibility over your work.

Final thoughts

The people that I trust to own things typically have two main attributes:

  1. They lack ego, and have enough self-confidence that they take on blame without caring.
  2. They’re organized and organizationally minded so that they can work with and communicate with others

We all do this, just at different levels and in different situations. Personally I think I’m pretty good at owning technical problems because I already feel comfortable in that space. My ego is secure and I can focus on solving problems.

However, if you ask me to own a dinner party I get really defensive and I defer as much as I can “Should we serve this dish or that one? How about the wine?” This is because I feel like an impostor. That’s OK. Everyone does this in different spaces. The solution is to start smaller and build up until I have more confidence. No one jumps directly to stage-7. Everybody grows.


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