I often talk about ownership as a desirable characteristic for people in my team, whether as a manager or an individual contributor, so what does taking ownership really mean?
Taking ownership is about taking initiative. We often are spurred to take ownership when we believe that a necessary action is not someone else’s responsibility, or when no-one else is showing leadership.
Ownership is easier to evoke if an individual feels connected to the goals of the whole team or the wider organisation, and wants to act beyond the metrics they’re personally measured on.
If you are a manager with a high sense of responsibility, if someone in your team takes ownership of a project, you can feel it. It is like they’ve taken a load away from you, saying “I will take ownership of this project and see it through to the end, without regard to the resources currently controlled”.
This means when an obstacle gets in the way, a person taking ownership will search for a solution, even if that solution is to use resources which they, or their boss, do not control. They’ll then try to find a win-win way to align necessary resources to work on this goal, which in turn might require asking their boss to help get someone else’s resources to join the effort. When asking for help, there is not a transfer of ownership back to the leader, but rather the person showing ownership is using their boss as a force multiplier, or to legitimise the request.
Showing ownership of a project means you act like you are accountable for its quality and timeliness, particularly when you’re working in a virtual team without a defined leadership structure, and definitely so when your manager has asked you to take ownership for that project. Someone acting with a sense of ownership will look like a leader. They will take meeting notes, be clear on who is taking a certain action and by when, they’ll follow-up with people when tasks are due, and get frustrated if others aren’t appropriately prioritising the project.
In this way, ownership leads to behaviours which show control. Someone who has taken ownership will have situational awareness of the matter at hand; they will know what is outstanding to be done, when it’s due, and by who. They will be drawn to understanding a problem to a sufficient level of detail to be sure of success, and will not flit around justifying their lack of ownership by saying they are ‘a big picture person’.
Generally, when someone taking ownership describes obstacles or something unexpected having gone wrong, their language won’t tend to sound like an excuse. This is because taking ownership is also about acting with an internal locus of control; it is the opposite to being a victim of circumstance.
Bear in mind that everyone has limits, and you can only properly discharge responsibility on a certain amount of complexity or change. I’ve written about the concept of a personal complexity budget which you spend on achieving things. It might help you avoid failure from having overburdened yourself.
When you strike the balance right, in favour of taking ownership, you will be displaying a leadership quality that distinguishes you.