Rethinking "ownership" across the organization

Who really owns an open project?

Transitioning to an open organization from a conventional one might cause us to rethink the concepts of "ownership" and "responsibility."

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Differences in organizational design don't necessarily make some organizations better than others—just better suited to different purposes. Any style of organization must account for its models of ownership (the way tasks get delegated, assumed, executed) and responsibility (the way accountability for those tasks gets distributed and enforced). Conventional organizations and open organizations treat these issues differently, however, and those difference can be jarring for anyone hopping transitioning from one organizational model to another. But transitions are ripe for stumbling over—oops, I mean, learning from.

Let's do that.

Ownership explained

In most organizations (and according to typical project management standards), work on projects proceeds in five phases:

  • Initiation: Assess project feasibility, identify deliverables and stakeholders, assess benefits
  • Planning (Design): Craft project requirements, scope, and schedule; develop communication and quality plans
  • Executing: Manage task execution, implement plans, maintain stakeholder relationships
  • Monitoring/Controlling: Manage project performance, risk, and quality of deliverables
  • Closing: Sign-off on completion requirements, release resources

The list above is not exhaustive, but I'd like to add one phase that is often overlooked: the "Adoption" phase, frequently needed for strategic projects where a change to the culture or organization is required for "closing" or completion.

  • Adoption: Socializing the work of the project; providing communication, training, or integration into processes and standard workflows.

Examining project phases is one way contrast the expression of ownership and responsibility in organizations.

Two models, contrasted

In my experience, "ownership" in a traditional software organization works like this.

A manager or senior technical associate initiates a project with senior stakeholders and, with the authority to champion and guide the project, they bestow the project on an associate at some point during the planning and execution stages. Frequently, but not always, the groundwork or fundamental design of the work has already been defined and approved—sometimes even partially solved. Employees are expected to see the project through execution and monitoring to completion.

Employees cut their teeth on a "starter project," where they prove their abilities to a management chain (for example, I recall several such starter projects that were already defined by a manager and architect, and I was assigned to help implement them). Employees doing a good job on a project for which they're responsible get rewarded with additional opportunities, like a coveted assignment, a new project, or increased responsibility.

An associate acting as "owner" of work is responsible and accountable for that work (if someone, somewhere, doesn't do their job, then the responsible employee either does the necessary work herself or alerts a manager to the problem.) A sense of ownership begins to feel stable over time: Employees generally work on the same projects, and in the same areas for an extended period. For some employees, it means the development of deep expertise. That's because the social network has tighter integration between people and the work they do, so moving around and changing roles and projects is rather difficult.

This process works differently in an open organization.

Associates continually define the parameters of responsibility and ownership in an open organization—typically in light of their interests and passions. Associates have more agency to perform all the stages of the project themselves, rather than have pre-defined projects assigned to them. This places additional emphasis on leadership skills in an open organization, because the process is less about one group of people making decisions for others, and more about how an associate manages responsibilities and ownership (whether or not they roughly follow the project phases while being inclusive, adaptable, and community-focused, for example).

Being responsible for all project phases can make ownership feel more risky for associates in an open organization. Proposing a new project, designing it, and leading its implementation takes initiative and courage—especially when none of this is pre-defined by leadership. It's important to get continuous buy-in, which comes with questions, criticisms, and resistance not only from leaders but also from peers. By default, in open organizations this makes associates leaders; they do much the same work that higher-level leaders do in conventional organizations. And incidentally, this is why Jim Whitehurst, in The Open Organization, cautions us about the full power of "transparency" and the trickiness of getting people's real opinions and thoughts whether we like them or not. The risk is not as high in a traditional organization, because in those organizations leaders manage some of it by shielding associates from heady discussions that arise.

The reward in an Open Organization is more opportunity—offers of new roles, promotions, raises, etc., much like in a conventional organization. Yet in the case of open organizations, associates have developed reputations of excellence based on their own initiatives, rather than on pre-sanctioned opportunities from leadership.

Thinking about adoption

Any discussion of ownership and responsibility involves addressing the issue of buy-in, because owning a project means we are accountable to our sponsors and users—our stakeholders. We need our stakeholders to buy-into our idea and direction, or we need users to adopt an innovation we've created with our stakeholders. Achieving buy-in for ideas and work is important in each type of organization, and it's difficult in both traditional and open systems—but for different reasons.

Open organizations better allow highly motivated associates, who are ambitious and skilled, to drive their careers. But support for their ideas is required across the organization, rather than from leadership alone.

Penetrating a traditional organization's closely knit social ties can be difficult, and it takes time. In such "command-and-control" environments, one would think that employees are simply "forced" to do whatever leaders want them to do. In some cases that's true (e.g., a travel reimbursement system). However, with more innovative programs, this may not be the case; the adoption of a program, tool, or process can be difficult to achieve by fiat, just like in an open organization. And yet these organizations tend to reduce redundancies of work and effort, because "ownership" here involves leaders exerting responsibility over clearly defined "domains" (and because those domains don't change frequently, knowing "who's who"—who's in charge, who to contact with a request or inquiry or idea—can be easier).

Open organizations better allow highly motivated associates, who are ambitious and skilled, to drive their careers. But support for their ideas is required across the organization, rather than from leadership alone. Points of contact and sources of immediate support can be less obvious, and this means achieving ownership of a project or acquiring new responsibility takes more time. And even then someone's idea may never get adopted. A project's owner can change—and the idea of "ownership" itself is more flexible. Ideas that don't get adopted can even be abandoned, leaving a great idea unimplemented or incomplete. Because any associate can "own" an idea in an open organization, these organizations tend to exhibit more redundancy. (Some people immediately think this means "wasted effort," but I think it can augment the implementation and adoption of innovative solutions. By comparing these organizations, we can also see why Jim Whitehurst calls this kind of culture "chaotic" in The Open Organization).

Two models of ownership

In my experience, I've seen very clear differences between conventional and open organizations when it comes to the issues of ownership and responsibility.

In an traditional organization:

  • I couldn't "own" things as easily
  • I felt frustrated, wanting to take initiative and always needing permission
  • I could more easily see who was responsible because stakeholder responsibility was more clearly sanctioned and defined
  • I could more easily "find" people, because the organizational network was more fixed and stable
  • I more clearly saw what needed to happen (because leadership was more involved in telling me).

Over time, I've learned the following about ownership and responsibility in an open organization:

  • People can feel good about what they are doing because the structure rewards behavior that's more self-driven
  • Responsibility is less clear, especially in situations where there's no leader
  • In cases where open organizations have "shared responsibility," there is the possibility that no one in the group identified with being responsible; often there is lack of role clarity ("who should own this?")
  • More people participate
  • Someone's leadership skills must be stronger because everyone is "on their own"; you are the leader.

Making it work

On the subject of ownership, each type of organization can learn from the other. The important thing to remember here: Don't make changes to one open or conventional value without considering all the values in both organizations.

Sound confusing? Maybe these tips will help.

If you're a more conventional organization trying to act more openly:

  • Allow associates to take ownership out of passion or interest that align with the strategic goals of the organization. This enactment of meritocracy can help them build a reputation for excellence and execution.
  • But don't be afraid sprinkle in a bit of "high-level perspective" in the spirit of transparency; that is, an associate should clearly communicate plans to their leadership, so the initiative doesn't create irrelevant or unneeded projects.
  • Involving an entire community (as when, for example, the associate gathers feedback from multiple stakeholders and user groups) aids buy-in and creates beneficial feedback from the diversity of perspectives, and this helps direct the work.
  • Exploring the work with the community doesn't mean having to come to consensus with thousands of people. Use the Open Decision Framework to set limits and be transparent about what those limits are so that feedback and participation is organized ad boundaries are understood.

If you're already an open organization, then you should remember:

  • Although associates initiate projects from "the bottom up," leadership needs to be involved to provide guidance, input to the vision, and circulate centralized knowledge about ownership and responsibility creating a synchronicity of engagement that is transparent to the community.
  • Ownership creates responsibility, and the definition and degree of these should be something both associates and leaders agree upon, increasing the transparency of expectations and accountability during the project. Don't make this a matter of oversight or babysitting, but rather a collaboration where both parties give and take—associates initiate, leaders guide; associates own, leaders support.

Leadership education and mentorship, as it pertains to a particular organization, needs to be available to proactive associates, especially since there is often a huge difference between supporting individual contributors and guiding and coordinating a multiplicity of contributions.

"Owning your own career" can be difficult when "ownership" isn't a concept an organization completely understands.

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About the author

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Heidi Hess von Ludewig - Heidi Hess von Ludewig researches networked workplace creativity from the systems perspective, which means that she examines the relationships of multiple elements within the workplace that influence how individuals and groups perform innovative and creative work. She spent over fifteen years in the software industry performing a variety of roles, from developer to analyst, for Fortune 500 companies before receiving her PhD from North Carolina State University in 2014. Her research informs the...