The best teams I’ve been on have displayed high levels of ownership. Ownership is a cultural trait that helps teams avoid failure by providing people the agency to pick up important work. We’ll focus on unmanaged work in this post because that’s the sort of work that is often dropped, and talk a bit about how filling gaps can derail one’s primary work. If you’ve seen people pick up work that needed to be done regardless of whether it was their job, that’s ownership. When people contribute to the overall success of a team, that’s ownership. When they manage what otherwise would have been unmanaged, that’s ownership.
Several years back a hacker named Geohot shared a Tweet containing a malformed string. That string caused a crash in Apple’s underlying string processing code, which was triggered by JSON deserialization in Twitter’s iOS app. People retweeted Geohot’s Tweet causing it to spread virally, crashing Twitter’s iOS client repeatedly on launch. This happened during my third week at Twitter! Someone dropped a note in the iOS team’s HipChat room. I was on the east coast and one of the few people online at the time, and while it wasn’t necessarily my job to fix this problem I decided to take a look anyway. I noted the quick fix was adding a try/catch around the code deserialization logic, but being new I didn’t know if that was an appropriate fix. An hour or so later a tenured teammate jumped on and put up a patch with the same fix I’d suggested. Someone on Twitter’s backend team added mitigation to stop the problem while the client fix could be released. This is a clear example of ownership, but not every example is so clear.
With that story in mind, let’s chat about how ownership manifests on teams, how it can wane as teams change, and how to encourage it.
How is ownership manifested?
Organizational segmentation is often inversely correlated to a sense of ownership, which is why small teams tend to have higher levels of ownership baked into their culture. People pick up important work that’s outside their purview for many reasons, but two that stand out to me are a desire to be helpful, and simply because no one has discouraged them from doing so yet. This works on young or small teams because everyone fails if nobody picks up unmanaged work, it’s easy to recognize and celebrate such work, and leaders like you trust people to work on the right things. New people joining a team pick up ownership because it’s ingrained in the team’s culture.
Over time ownership can become diluted, leading teams to optimize for local rather than global success. It takes effort for us to counteract this through both trust and recognition.
How does ownership become diluted?
Ownership can become diluted in more than one way. Personnel attrition absent knowledge sharing is a straightforward way to lose your team’s sense of ownership, but a less intuitive way to lose that agency is through growth. Teams tend to grow over time, and with growth come changes and new challenges. Your team may be changing right now, and you may have noticed some of these challenges, like keeping everyone on the same page being harder due to the difficulty of scaling communication. As communication becomes more difficult, teams organize into sub-teams to focus on specific things. Sub-teams are smaller, by definition, and so they have fewer communication issues within them. However, communication can remain difficult between sub-teams.
Sub-teams still have their own charters and goals: things they own and things they’re supposed to get done. Someone on the team – maybe a manager, or some other leader – is accountable for the work being done and they might, even inadvertently, discourage people from taking ownership by optimizing for local success.
But how does organizational change map to work being unmanaged? Imagine a bunch of circles, each representing a sub-team and its charter. Sometimes the circles are far apart, sometimes they overlap a little, but there’s space between many of the circles. The space is unmanaged work, and if it’s important enough it still needs to get done.
Sub-teams tend to form their own cultures based on their members. These can be managers, folks with tenure, or anyone who brings the team together. If we don’t encourage ownership, then the team’s sense of ownership will be diluted as the team changes, eventually leading to the failure of the broader team. Team leaders would ideally encourage ownership company-wide, but the reality is this varies from team to team and leader to leader.
It’s an easily defensible position that focus is important, and the important unmanaged work is someone else’s job since it’s not within a given team’s charter. Not only is it a defensible position, it’s actually a correct position so long as some people continue to demonstrate ownership as the broader team scales, and that ownership continues to be encouraged. However, when recognition and trust for ownership are scarce there can be a subtle shift from “it’s not our job” to “it’s no one’s job”, one that’s often not noticed until it’s too late. The broader team fails when something important enough goes undone because it is no one’s job.
Charters and Goals
Earlier I mentioned charters and goals are important, and there’s certainly a difference between work that can wait, and work that’s worth setting aside goals for. Completing the former at the expense of team goals is gap filling. There’s a big difference between ownership and filling gaps. Ownership is organization sanctioned and recognized, though you may have to do some work to sell the value of prioritizing specific work. After all, not everyone has the context you have on likely points of failure. Gap filling is picking up work that eventually needs to be done, but isn’t necessarily as important as your primary work. Gap filling can result in unfortunate consequences like your primary work not being completed and your team’s goals not being met as a result.
How can you tell the difference between work that can wait and work that’s worth setting aside goals for? I like to ask questions like what happens if nobody does this work? What’s the impact on the broader team and the business of completing the work? Does it need to be addressed now or can it wait?
If it’s work that’s important enough to do now at the expense of local success, then I ask the people ultimately accountable for that success if they agree with my assessment. It’s up to me to convey the importance and value of the work relative to our team’s goals. If they agree, I do the work and it’s up to them to get me the time and space I need to complete it. Sometimes work is important enough, but I can’t personally make the time tradeoff or I don’t have the necessary expertise. In those cases I try to find another person willing to take the work on and hold myself accountable for ensuring it’s completed.
Like any other prioritization decision there will be several inputs to account for and I may not get the buy-in I need to prioritize that work. Not everyone on a large team needs to take on unmanaged work, but having some percentage of people empowered to do so results in resilience when teams change.
We can encourage ownership by recognizing and making space for the important, unmanaged work their people do and ensuring knowledge about that work is shared. This incentivizes people to share the load and minimizes gaps that would otherwise not come to light until someone leaves the team. This is one way to eliminate single points of failure and while giving people space to learn new things. This is how you can build a culture of ownership over time. In the story above, we fixed the crash because we knew it was critical and we trusted our manager would appreciate our fixing the problem, even if it meant some other work slipped short term.
I have explicit conversations about expectations and ownership with my team. For instance, I share that I expect our goals to be met, but they can come to me if they need to shift time to unowned work for a little while. I ask them to explain the value of that work and we decide together on the next steps. I also talk about how our primary work will eb and flow (e.g. slower during planning periods and when we’re waiting on experiment results), and how there are natural times in our schedule that allow for taking on unowned work. Finally, I set a rough percentage of how much of my team’s time, over a long time horizon, should go toward core work vs. work our team does not own. That percentage will vary from team to team.
Ownership is a cultural trait that helps teams avoid failure by providing people agency, though not everyone on a team needs to demonstrate ownership for a broader team to meet its goals. Ownership can be diluted or encouraged as teams grow and change. Encouraging ownership requires us to set expectations, balance local and global priorities, provide recognition, and cover for their teams. Prioritizing unmanaged work requires assessing the impact of the work itself, and making space for people to bring that sort of work to their you.
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