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5-second summary

  • An ownership mindset means taking responsibility for outcomes and being empowered to make the decisions that will lead to those outcomes.
  • To cultivate an ownership mindset on your team, focus on transparency, autonomy, and customer empathy.
  • Meanwhile, your job as a leader is to determine strategy and set your team up for success.

What are the stakes when an organization doesn’t cultivate an ownership mindset within its teams? Ask the folks who worked at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before its epic meltdown. Here’s how it all unfolded.

In the early hours of April 26th, 1986, operators at Chernobyl objected to performing a test they’d only just been informed of, insisting that conditions weren’t right. They were overruled by a manager who was more concerned with his own ambitions than with the success of the program he was responsible for (let alone the safety of his team members).

The test, which was later likened to “airline pilots experimenting with the engines in flight,” triggered a total meltdown of the reactor core. A radioactive cloud quickly contaminated food sources for millions of people throughout Europe. Entire towns near the reactor had to be abandoned. The health, environmental, and economic impacts have cost hundreds of billions over the past 30 years.

The International Atomic Energy Association concluded in a 1993 report that bad management and bad technology were at fault – not the operators, as bureaucrats and politicians had claimed. And the faulty tech itself was, of course, the product of the disempowering, command-and-control environment in which the reactor was designed.

The Chernobyl disaster stemmed from the fact that nobody felt a sense of ownership. It’s a powerful reminder of how bad things can get when those performing the work have no authority, and those in charge don’t hold themselves accountable.

What is an ownership mindset, and why does it matter?

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When people have an ownership mindset, they take responsibility for outcomes – not just output – and are empowered to make decisions that will lead to those outcomes. That last bit is critical: accountability and authority must go hand in hand. When they don’t, work becomes transactional, and employee engagement plummets. 

3 ways to spot a lack of ownership

Let’s step back from the realm of catastrophe and consider how the lack of an ownership mindset can manifest in more typical circumstances:

  1. A disjointed user experience – When everyone’s attention is confined to this piece or that piece, we lose the opportunity to look at the experience of using a product or service holistically.
  2. “Tragedy of the commons” – Everybody sees what’s wrong, but nobody feels empowered or compelled to do anything about it because the thing in question isn’t, y’know… theirs. So things continue to deteriorate, dragging morale and the company’s reputation down with it.
  3. Underperformance – When people on the front lines don’t have authority over their work, they won’t do their best work (even if they’re sincerely trying). That means it’s harder and takes longer to achieve the results you’re after. Neither the product nor the people perform well.

Benefits of an ownership mindset

On the flip side, when an ownership mentality is part of your team culture, good things happen:

  • Increased agility – Teams that own an experience or outcome end-to-end can move quickly because they can make most judgments independently and can coordinate directly with any other teams involved. It’s a way to infuse a startup vibe, even if you’re part of a massive company.
  • More innovation – Ownership affords teams the opportunity to step off the beaten path and take calculated risks.
  • Higher morale – When people have a say in what problem they’re going to solve and how they’re going to solve it, they feel heard and included, which will in turn encourage more buy-in from team members.
  • Easier recruiting and retention – The feeling that you’re making a major contribution can be a big selling point, especially for companies that aren’t well known. A developer could own the entire user onboarding flow at a small company. Or, they could own the back button in Chrome at Google.

How to cultivate an ownership mindset on your teams

This whole ownership thing sounds great, right? The good news is that, unlike averting nuclear meltdown, instilling a sense of ownership in your teams isn’t rocket science (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphors). The leadership team at cloud communications platform Twilio understands ownership mentality and has made a point of baking it into their culture since the beginning. When co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson popped into a recent town hall session at Atlassian, he shared the basics of their approach.

Shift from a project mindset to a product mindset

“The difference between a product and a project is ownership,” Lawson says. Shifting from a project mindset to a product mindset prompts you to work toward achieving an outcome and maintaining it. This is very different from driving toward a ship date, then clapping the dust off your hands and walking away from the work, which is essentially what happens with projects.

Twilio organizes into small teams that own a customer experience from end to end. “Our teams are defined by three things,” he explains, “the customer they’re serving, the mission they’re on in service of that customer, and the metrics that tell us whether we’re doing a good job.” With those three things in place, you now have a structure that allows the team to take the ball and run with it.

The trick is making sure end-to-end ownership doesn’t result in siloed teams. According to Lawson, leaders at Twilio strive to “poke holes” through the organization in order to increase visibility across teams. “For example, we’ll have developers sit in on sales calls,” he explains. “Or they’ll periodically handle support tickets for their product.”

Delegate decision-making to the lowest level possible

How to be a successful project owner (without micromanaging)

Authority over everyday judgment calls about how to achieve an outcome should sit with the people closest to the work. This usually means individual contributors and team leads. Not only does this authority let them move faster and adapt quickly to change, but it’s also a key component of intrinsic motivation – that fire in the belly rooted in a combination of autonomy, mastery of one’s craft, and a sense of purpose.

However, when the deciders and the implementers sit too far apart on the org chart, bad things can happen. The emergency response to the meltdown at Chernobyl, for example, was throttled by a culture that required decisions to be escalated so far up the chain they were made by bureaucrats who knew next to nothing about nuclear engineering. People died as a result.

Similarly, the people calling the shots at large companies might be several levels above the people actually doing the work in question. If they don’t agree, there’s not much they can do. “You feel like you’re in a Dilbert cartoon with a pointy-headed boss who just made another bad call” Lawson points out. Not exactly a situation where people feel motivated to do their best work. “But on a small team,” he continues, “chances are, you were in on the decision or can at least talk to your manager about it. That helps people stay close to the mission.”

Share information openly

Knowing the company’s big-picture strategy and lessons learned from past mistakes helps people be more effective in their roles. As Katie Burke, Chief People Officer at Hubspot points out, transparency unlocks smarter, more strategic innovation. As such, they make information about the company’s priorities – as well as what’s not a priority – easily accessible by putting it all on Confluence pages.

“As we post all these things for people to see, they actually start to think like an owner of the business,” she explains. “You create more ownership of your own decisions and of the future of the company. Transparency makes your employees better entrepreneurs.”

Invest in customer empathy

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You can’t own a customer experience effectively if you don’t understand your customers. “One of our values at Twilio is to wear the customer’s shoes,” Lawson says. That means both using your own product the way a customer would (e.g., without pinging your friend on the support team for help when you get stuck) and understanding the problem your customer needs to solve. “If we wear their shoes, we’re in a better position to solve that problem.”

Many product managers and leaders feel it’s their job to shield their teams from customers so they can focus on building and creating. But Lawson disagrees, pointing out that speaking with customers directly is the best way to get to know their needs and preferences. “Great product managers see their role as facilitating the right kind of interactions between their team and the customer,” he says. From there, techniques like defining customer personas and creating empathy maps can help round it out.

So, where does that leave your role as a leader?

By now it should be obvious that a leader’s job isn’t to make all the decisions. Instead, set your teams up to take responsibility for their own contributions. That includes providing air cover when their work is questioned or when they take a risk and fail. Knowing you’ve got their backs promotes psychological safety, which is one of the most important factors in a team’s success.

But the best part is that giving your teams more ownership ultimately frees you up to work on big-picture strategy and training the next generation of leaders at your company. Those activities will do more to boost your career and will feel more satisfying than micro-managing ever could.

The disaster at Chernobyl resulted from a culture of strong-arming and finger-pointing, and was entirely preventable. It also played an outsized role in the Soviet Union’s demise, according to then-Premier Mikhail Gorbachev – more than glasnost, perestroika, blue jeans, rock n’ roll, and Coca-Cola combined.

And yet, when things go sideways, some companies still insist on blaming employees on the front lines instead of addressing the leadership behaviors that set them up to fail. This is the way of the past. If you want your business to have a future, start by empowering your teams.

For more insights on how to cultivate an ownership mindset and unleash the potential of your software developer teams, check out Jeff Lawson’s book “Ask Your Developer.”

3 signs your team doesn’t have an ownership mindset and what to do about it