Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ownership

Imagine this scene:  You walk out of your front door to pick up the morning paper.  On the ground next to the paper is an empty take-out food container.  You pick up the paper, look at the empty container, and go back into the house leaving the the trash on your front doorstep.

"Difficult to imagine", you say.  Why?  This scene is played out every day on the streets of our communities, and in the halls of our organizations.

How can it be that in one case we can't imagine leaving trash on our front door step, and yet we will allow trash to remain on the sidewalk of our town as we walk by.  In our home, we will expect workers to do their jobs correctly, but in our organizations we will tolerate work that is only "good enough to get by"?

The difference is "Ownership".

In our example, you are (or at least are imagining that you are) the homeowner.  This is your property.  Some thoughtless person has thrown their trash on your property, and it offends you. 

When you walk down a street, or are working for an employer, your feeling of ownership is very different.  You may feel like you are part of the community, or are a loyal employee, but you are not the owner.  It is someone else's job to pick up the trash, or it is someone else's job to oversee the work of the other employees.

Within an organization, when the top leader or manager is the only one who feels ownership for the quality of the work, or the accomplishment of a goal, life is very difficult.  Everyone does their part, but only their part.  This is not out of spite, nor is it even a conscious attitude on the part of the employees.  Many feel ownership for their part of the product.  But, if the product is not completed on time, or does not meet the quality standards required by the customer, it is not their fault.  It is someone else's fault.  It is the owner's fault.

In the same organization, when everyone feels ownership of the final product, or accomplishment of a goal, the atmosphere is very different.  The top leader or manager now has allies, other owners who care about the end result, not just their part of the project.  To continue the metaphor above, you now have many homeowners who are willing to either pick up the trash on the front step, or help others do it.  But, have no doubt that the trash will get picked up.  

For a leader, the goal is to change the conversation within the organization from one of tasks and parts, to one that focuses on what we are trying to construct together.  This is not an effort to make every person responsible for every action or task.  However, when many people see what is being constructed, can speak about the end result as well as their contribution to that result, and begin to feel ownership in the final product, the likelihood of success is increased many fold.

Peter Block, an author, consultant, and expert on bringing people together, says that "Ownership is the decision to become the author of our own experiences," (Community - The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block, P. 128).  This is true for communities both inside and outside of our organizations.  When people choose ownership they move from the role of victim, employee, or observer, to architect of the world within which they choose to live.

After reading this, the next time you are walking down a street and see a piece of trash you will automatically think about whether you are an observer or an owner of the community.

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I want to point your attention to the comment below from Robin Reid.  Robin is both an organizational development expert with years of great experience under his belt, and a good friend.  His comment is right on the money with regard to the relationship to ownership and decision making.  Thanks for the insight, Robin.