Vanquishing Ownership Ambiguity – Navigating Complexity in the Office
Ambiguous ownership is a necessary part of working in complex situations. Being able to navigate this ambiguity is a part of successful leadership.
Meta point to make. Sometimes when I'm writing, I'll spend a significant amount of time batting around ideas, looking at my half-written posts, and trying to figure out what I want to write about.
Then, once I've picked an idea, I write out my outline. No problem there, I usually can bang something out in a few minutes. Then I get into the meat of the article, writing the actual narrative. Sometimes the article is challenging to write, because it doesn't quite click that day. Other times, like today, I barely notice time passing until I'm nearing the end of the article. Today's article was nothing, and then suddenly it was over two thousand words long, and I was still typing. I ended up having to split it into two articles, or I'd end up with a monstrosity which would be difficult to read. I think I like it split into two articles, one to talk through the situation, and one for the practical suggestions I'll make (next week). We'll see how it goes!
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You've gained experience over the years. You started as a college hire, and became an experienced engineer. More recently, you decided to move into engineering management. Things have been ok, but you've been uneasy about a new problem cropping up.
When you started work out of college, determining what you owned was easy. You'd open JIRA, select a task, mark yourself as the owner, and then work on it. What did you own? That JIRA. No one else owned it. Things were super clear.
As you became a more senior engineer, it occasionally became awkward. You would be thinking about a solution for a complex issue, and you'd find out that someone else on the team was also trying to solve the same issue. That could cause a few hackles to be raised. Hopefully you were able to discuss things politely and work it out. If not, your manager may have stepped in to clarify things.
As you've moved into a management position, you've begun to run into this issue more frequently. A peer team says that they're solving a specific customer issue, that you thought your team was solving. Another team claims that their charter is X, which is awfully similar to your team's charter.
Getting more senior only exacerbates the problem. Issues are not single trouble tickets, but connected areas of business, customers, and technology. Everything seems to overlap with everything else. Your clarity has long since disappeared, and all you're left with is a cloud of ambiguity.
This ambiguity of ownership happens in any complex situation, at any company of a decent size, and you will encounter it more frequently as you become more senior (in any role). If you're interested in career progression, and you're interested in working at a large company, this will be an issue.
Ambiguity around ownership is one of the major reasons people claim that large companies are “political”, and one of the driving forces behind managers moving back to individual contributor roles. That type of interpersonal conflict can be stressful if you don't have a clear way to navigate it.
What do I mean by owner?
If you have a mobile app, who is the final decision maker to decide if you should launch a cool new feature, when you just identified a minor bug in it?
If you have a website, who is the final decision maker to decide if you should spend $10k to translate the site into Russian?
If you have a weekly project review meeting, who is the final decision maker to decide if you should extend the meeting an extra half-hour, or perhaps cancel the meeting completely?
If you ever ask an abstract question like this, and don't arrive at a clear answer, then you're missing a clear owner. That means you have an inability to make decisions.