Last week I started writing, and ended up writing a double length article. I split the article into two logical parts. I posted the first part about ownership here. In that first half, I explained that individuals having ownership is important for companies to be successful. I admitted that personally demonstrating ownership (and having ownership over something significant) is a critical way to advance your career. I also covered why complex companies which operate complex businesses inevitably have complex and ambiguous ownership.
The above leads to the inevitable situation where the company needs strong leaders to demonstrate ownership, strong leaders advance their careers through owning significant things, and determining who owns something is complex. Those strong leaders end up fighting over who owns what. Many would call that the core of office politics.
Now unless you're a certain breed of masochist, you would prefer to do your work, not waste your life energy fighting others for ownership. Yet even with the best of intentions, it's not always clear who should be doing what.
If you prefer to avoid the issue completely, you could end up in a situation where no one is a clear owner. This is fine if there are no important decisions. Yet when critical decisions need to be made, nothing is as fast and clear as a single designated decider. That owner can make the difference between swift, decisive action, or dozens of useless meetings.
Resolving your ownership
As your career advances, you'll run into ownership issues more often. When coaching clients contact me, ownership issues are one of the more common topics.
"So there's this peer, and they think they should own this important decision."
"I have three partners, and we each heavily overlap each other's domains."
"There is a product team, and a business team, and we keep stepping on each other's toes."
First, a basic thing about ownership and assignments.
We (managers) sometimes use lazy phrasing. Imagine that I need something printed for a meeting. I'll turn to someone who works for me, and say, “Please print that document and bring it to our meeting.” What I really meant was, “Please ensure that this document gets printed, and it ends up at our meeting.” I expect people to read between the lines, but that can trip up junior employees.
So lesson one. If you're asked to explicitly do something, sometimes the right answer is to do it yourself. Sometimes the right answer is to make certain the task gets done by someone.
Now, as your career advances, the ownership issues will be significantly more complex than, “My manager asked me to do something.” More frequently you'll be dealing with multiple peers, other management chains, and more. I'll walk through the three major categories of ownership, and some suggestions for how to deal with them.
Things already owned elsewhere
You were recently hired as the project manager for a mobile website. Your manager says, “Please create a weekly status meeting.”
You soon learn that a peer of yours – the engineering manager for the mobile website – already has a weekly status meeting. Huh. That's interesting.
Ask yourself these questions.
- Does it make any sense that this person owns this thing?
Can an engineering manager run a project review meeting? Sure! Why not.
If, on the other hand, the owner of the project review meeting was a recent college hire software engineer, I'd probably suggest you have a polite conversation with her that you'd like to take things over.
2. Are they ok owning it?
I'd always advise having this type of conversation.
"Hey engineering manager. I was asked to make a weekly status meeting. It looks to me like you already are running a great project status meeting. Would you like to keep running it? If so, I'd like to tell my manager that this is already owned and in good shape."
It's nice to make other people feel good, so it wouldn't hurt to compliment their ownership. Plus, it reinforces positive feelings around their ownership if they're going to keep it. Make certain that they're comfortable being the owner (perhaps they only stepped up because no one else did?). Support them if needed.
3. Are they owning it well?
As a leader, it's not enough to say that someone else owns it. You also need to ensure they're a good owner. If it feels warranted, you should work with them on improving the output.
"Hey engineering manager. I love attending your weekly status meeting. Let me know if you would like me to take it over or help in some way. By the way, I noticed that a few people are saying that they'll do something in your meeting, but drop the ball during the next week. That must be frustrating. What if you sent out an email after the meeting with action items for everyone? That might help them have accountability.
To improve things, it's not necessary for you to own them. Consider how you can help others be more successful.
4. Clarify to everyone that the other person is the official owner.
"Hey my manager. I know you asked me to ensure that a weekly project review meeting was happening. Turns out that the engineering manager already had a review meeting. I went to it, and it looks like it's run well. She's going to keep owning that, unless you object. Let me know if you have any concerns or questions around the weekly status meeting."
Your manager likely wanted someone to own it, not necessarily you. Perhaps they have something specific they're worried about, so ensure that you're listening carefully to your manager's concerns. Overall, the value you just contributed is information and education and clarification. You also sound more senior, because you didn't clumsily try to take ownership over something which was already owned. Senior people are more relaxed about giving up ownership.