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Insights from Ben Neivert

Ownership in Management

What is it? How do you build it? How can it be destroyed?

I was recently listening to the Harvard Business School podcast where they were discussing family businesses. During the podcast, they mentioned that management is taught in business school but not ownership. I believe that ownership is an essential ingredient to success.

Overall, there are three critical concepts for leading a team, group, or enterprise:

  1. Ownership,

  2. Leadership, and

  3. Management.

Ownership, such an important concept in any activity, is rarely taught in business schools or leadership programs. Leadership, and followership are covered as part of the management curriculum and in many popular books. And, of course, management is taught with an almost unfathomable number of variations. But ownership, that is, how to be a good owner of a process, business unit, or business, is not taught anywhere.

My father owned a small business, and he was pretty good at it. He looked after his employees and his customers like they were part of an extended family. It worked; in the thirty years he owned his business, he had zero employee turnover and pretty much never lost a customer.

When we are good owners, combined with our leadership and management education, the bottom line works out.

What do I mean by the concept of ownership?​

Let's look at an example from the workshops I run; each workshop has three key components:

  1. Agreeing on the problem and the steps to a solution (the agenda);

  2. A learning component where appropriate new concepts are introduced, discussed, and even practiced, usually using a case study where no one is emotional invested; and,

  3. An application component where the participants (not the facilitator!) apply the new concepts to the current problem.

The single most important reason why these workshops are successful is ownership. (Apart from the fact that they are highly engineered events and take weeks of planning). The people involved in the workshop learn the concepts and apply them to the problem: they develop the answers! They own the answers! Even if they don't get the solution precisely right in the workshop, they know how they got there, and they can fix whatever minor challenges occur during implementation.

So, building ownership is critical in many applications:

  • Owning the customer experience

  • Owning the interdepartmental relationship

  • Owning the work products, and

  • Owning the quality of the communications between yourself and others.

Like the old maxim says, most people don't wash rental cars but, if they own the car...

The question remains, how do you build ownership?

To successfully build ownership, the team needs knowledge and control. The first step is to understand the group as both a group and as individuals. To develop an effective, perhaps elegant, solution, the group must have a range of knowledge and experience. If they are missing key knowledge, say best practice, or key experiences, help them fill in the gaps. Then, they can develop a solution they own. New knowledge or experience applied to an old problem yields new and better solutions.

How can you destroy Ownership?

One way is through technology that does not support the employees' delivery of a great customer experience — I was at a restaurant where customers ordered at the counter. The restaurant was bustling: customers had to wait 30-45 minutes for their order. The reason, the order queueing system used a first-come-first-made sequence. Large, complex orders held up easy orders; orders back in the queue that did not need a particular piece of equipment had to wait for orders that did. I even witnessed staff taken away from fulfilling orders to issue refunds: and the order was still made and discarded. Employees had no ownership of the process or the customer experience, and it showed.

Previously, I gave an example of workshops, next is the more day-to-day operations examples. By providing teams with knowledge of what best performance looks like, they will often set performance goals above what a manager might set and, more importantly, they are invested in hitting or exceeding those goals. Even when the first opportunity they have they set conservative goals, as they gain experience the goals get very aggressive. So, it is on the leader or facilitator to create an opportunity for the team to learn what best performance looks like, then ask them to apply what they learned to their environment.

Crawling Over Broken Glass

​Most employees want to do a good job, to deliver a fantastic customer experience. Usually, it is the system or process that gets in the way: like crawling over broken glass.

​If we provide the tools and support to sweep the broken glass out of the way, a vast majority of employees will deliver an excellent customer experience. So, what is the broken glass? The computer system, as it was in a large manufacturing company I worked with? Could it be the 100-year-old processes like in many public institutions such as local, state, and federal government? Collaborating and training employees to identify and remove broken glass is the first step. After that, in many cases, it is a lot about getting out of their way!

Putting it all together for process improvement

​When we look at improving a process, we tend to want to look at small parts, parts within our control, which can often lead to optimizing one aspect of the process without an improvement that is visible to the customer of the process. The best way to improve a process is to look at the entire process, with people responsible for each part. Look at it as if you were developing the process from scratch today. How can we leverage new technology or new capabilities? For example, with cloud services, it is often possible to work much more in parallel.

Developing a vision of how it can be provides an opportunity to improve the entire process to deliver value to the customer.


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