In order to create a working environment that keeps people engaged in the objectives that are important to the organization, it is important to empower them with ownership.

Ownership allows people the space to operate creatively to solve problems. Leaders that do not understand and utilize the power of ownership may be creating a toxic culture, and could sabotage their own objectives.

The True Nature of Ownership

Ownership is a tricky thing. It bestows two things on the owner: authority and accountability.

Obviously, everyone wants the power and freedom to make the decisions that they think are the most advantageous from their perspective.

Accountability is subdivided into two parts: recognition and blame. Everyone wants recognition for a job well done, and all the praise and adoration that come with being a successful owner.

However, taking blame and criticism is not generally desirable. Because accountability for any failure can be uncomfortable, I've witnessed many ways that we build creative solutions to this "problem".

For Individuals and Teams

While the discussion here may sound targeted at individuals, all of these concepts are equally applicable at a team level. The same dysfunction at a small scale happens on larger scales.

Attempt #1: Avoid Ownership

The most simple way to avoid not being accountable, is to simply avoid ownership altogether. This guarantees that you will not accept any blame.

Unfortunately, you will not get any credit, customers will not be served, and this is a difficult way to succeed. If this road is taken too often, you may find opportunities pass you by. But at least you won't be subject to the potential for failure. Until you make yourself irrelevant.

Attempt #2: Renounce Accountability

Avoiding ownership altogether is career-limiting, and doesn't provide the accolades necessary to be seen as valuable. The astute will try to change the rules of the game. All you need to do is renounce any blame, while attempting to maintain ownership and control.

This is not for beginners, because this has some serious potential to backfire. It may be that you have built up enough of a reputation to ride this train for a little while, but it will catch up with you.

This can be accomplished by assigning blame elsewhere, lack of any metric to demonstrate success or failure, running interference, providing excellent excuses, demonstrating the failure was part of your grand plan, quickly changing the topic onto the next thing, etc.

The Winning Solution: Shared Ownership

So, we can't avoid ownership, and rejecting blame is obviously slimy and not right for us because morality and integrity are key to how we operate. We found the perfect solution: share the ownership with everyone.

There are 2 rules: Everyone shares the authority, and we don't point fingers since we are all in it together.

Brilliant! Now if anyone needs to do something, they are instantly empowered to get their job done, and if something goes wrong, there's nobody to blame, except everybody.

This gives us the best of both worlds.

Shared Ownership is No Ownership

If the sarcasm wasn't obvious, I'm sorry. The idea of shared ownership is one of the most pernicious things I've seen inflicted on teams.

At first blush, shared ownership seems really empowering. But give it a try. I've seen it in action, and my conclusion is that it is exactly this: a catastrophe.

All Gain No Pain

Shared ownership gives away the control, but dilutes accountability. With accountability diluted, both the credit and blame components are diluted.

What is wrong with that? The incentive structure is no longer there to positively reinforce good performance. If you improve something, you'll get a pat on the back, but you'll never be able to claim major kudos if you aren't seen as the owner responsible for the effort.

Once the incentives are gone, neglect is the only option. No matter how altruistic you think your team can be, they are still human.

It's Not Mine, It's Ours

As soon as ownership is shared, you are no longer empowered to make decisions independently. You must bring every detail to a cohort of stakeholders. If anyone has experienced "Design by Committee"... this is it.

What you've inadvertently done is actually build in friction to making unsolicited improvements. Any improvements sanctioned by agreement will of course be made, but with no owner to be responsible for the care and feeding of a particular area, only the most rewarding work will be performed.

Nobody Can Say Yes or No

You may not require any checks and balances on changes made to any system. This could be setup as a free-for-all to resolve the Design by Committee error. Now anyone can self-service their changes because not only is ownership shared, but everyone is empowered to make all kinds of decisions they won't be held to account for later.

Say Goodbye to Craftsmanship and Longevity

If you no longer have a stake in a product or deliverable, and you are just a "hired gun", this changes how you look at a product. If you are a temporary helper in every piece you touch, there is no connection to the product.

If long-term ownership is not defined, what incentive do you have to help those who work on the product in the future? You're not going to be around, so why should you make sure your solutions last far into the future? There is no incentive. You have no reason other than out of the goodness of your heart to do anything to help those future people.

A plan that relies on the benevolence of people is doomed to failure. See: all of human history.

The Way Out: Take and Give Ownership

Clear ownership boundaries empower people with a sense of pride in what they are working on. Seek out ownership, and seek to give ownership to others.

Get Clear on Expectations

Don't assume the boundaries of ownership are clear. Communicate what you own, and what others own. Identify misunderstandings on who owns what. Write it down.

Clear the Lanes for Others

Don't hold people back from ownership. Micromanaging is not an option. Teams should be empowered, and they should also be accountable. Follow up is appropriate, and should be encouraged by all parties.

Ownership Follows Organization Structure

Sometimes ownership is fuzzy. This is just reality. If possible, have ownership track the leadership structure of the organization. Leaders at the top ultimately are responsible for everything the teams under them do.