Introducing Ownership

In his great book ‘Extreme Ownership’, former Navy SEAL Commander Jocko Willink recounts the painful episode of a friendly-fire, or ‘blue-on-blue’, incident on the streets of Ramadi, Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The ‘incident’ was the result of several communication break-downs and the rapidly changing nature of modern warfare. No single person was truly to blame.

However, Commander Willink describes the post-event debrief with his bosses and makes an unlikely claim, “There is only one person to blame for this: me. I am the commander. I am responsible for the entire operation. As the senior man, I am responsible for every action that takes place on the battlefield. There is no one to blame but me.”

Willink’s taking responsibility for the friendly-fire incident is an example of what he calls ‘Extreme Ownership’. The notion that the leader is responsible, period.

The Value of an Ownership Mindset

As I’ve discussed this principle as I’ve worked with technology team leaders and managers around the US, the common reaction I get is a sort of soft denial. I understand that. When I first heard the story I felt the same way. The notion that the leader is responsible, even when someone else is really to blame, is a hard pill to swallow. Initially, it seems foolish, even perhaps career-ending, to take the fall for what someone else did wrong.

But I’ve come to understand that the principle of ownership isn’t some sort of noble ideal about falling on your sword to protect others. Instead, ownership is about finding solutions. In fact, when you embrace the idea, extreme ownership is incredibly liberating for a leader. Let me give you an example:

Imagine you are the leader of a project team. Your team has failed to hit an important deadline because another team provided some key information too late. Not such an unlikely scenario, right? The ‘natural’ response would be to blame the other team and defend your own team’s record, maintaining that you weren’t responsible for the delay.

The problem here is that laying the blame at the feet of the other team makes you helpless. All you can really do as a victim is to complain about what they did ‘to you’.

But, if you turn this around through the perspective of extreme ownership, you would say, ‘I own the fact that the other team sent me the information late, I need to fix that’. As the owner of the problem, you become free to begin creating solutions – talk to the other team leader and make your needs clearer, set up a trigger point to alert you if you don’t have the info you need by a certain date, etc.

Owning the problem changes the conversation from a problem focus to a solution focus, putting you in a position of action and power.

Ownership as a Team-wide Value

Owning outcomes and problems is a highly valuable mindset for a team leader,  but the real win is when that value permeates throughout your team. When everyone is practicing ownership, solutions begin to occur almost before the problem has made itself felt. But how do you promote ownership as a team-wide value?

There are really three key steps. First, you can begin the process by effectively modeling ownership yourself. Second, explicitly discussing the mindset and its impact with your team creates understanding and awareness. And third, rewarding examples of ownership cements the appropriate behavior into your team culture.



Rewarding Ownership

In many ways, rewarding ownership isn’t any different than rewarding any other specific behavior. There are three key principles:

  1. Be very specific about the behavior being rewarded. This allows the individual, as well as other team members, to clearly identify the behavior you want to see more of!
  2. The time lapse between the positive behavior and the recognition should be as small as possible. This ensures that the behavior is well remembered and can be repeated in the future.
  3. When appropriate, recognizing positive behavior in public not only adds value to the recognition, because the recipient knows that their peers are aware of it, but also provides a valuable guideline for everyone else that this is the sort of behavior you would like to see more of.

When the mindset of ownership becomes an innate value – meaning that owning a problem is peoples first response, not merely a conscious decision, you have truly impacted your teams’ culture and have embedded a principle that will strengthen communication and decision-making, promote innovation, and build engagement and satisfaction within your team!

Next Steps: If you’re looking for more simple tactics to make your team more effective, download my free checklist ‘Boost Technology Team Performance in 30 Minutes: Nine High Impact Activities to Build Engagement, Increase Retention, and Drive Performance’