One characteristic of great teams is that its members assume ownership by default. A strong sense of ownership means that the individual deeply cares about and feels responsible for doing a good job for their customers, their team or their company. Owners don't assume someone else is there to catch the ball, they go for it. That is their default behavior.
Ownership clearly applies to almost every aspect of our lives, but here I'm mainly talking about it from an engineering manager's point of view. Managers are accountable for the reliability of systems that their teams own. A Manager cannot instill a great sense of ownership into their team members without feeling responsible and being accountable for the end-to-end experience of their customers.
Usually it is not difficult to figure out whether an individual, a team, or an organization has a strong sense of ownership:
- Does the individual, team or organization follow up on their commitments? Is communicating how they did with their commitments a part of their sprint or quarterly planning?
- Does the individual, team or organization care about bugs, system outages or other issues that cause production unreliability? It is important to clarify that this does not mean there are no bugs, or issues that cause system unreliability. It means that the team is resolving these issues quickly, or making big investments in reliability that may take a long time to roll out. Does the team understand the problems causing unreliability and have both a short and long term plan to mitigate these problems?
- Your customers usually don't know the underlying technology, or the services and components created by different teams in your company, and they don't care. Does the individual, team or organization take full ownership of the end-to-end customer experience or do they assume another person or team is responsible for this?
Ownership Requires Making Tough Choices
One thing to keep in mind about taking ownership is that it also requires you to make tough choices. These tough choices might not be received well by some colleagues and some customers. They might entail throwing away a functionality that one of your team members worked hard on.
Adding a new feature is usually much easier than taking it away from your customers. Giving new data is almost always much simpler than taking away data. Ownership means thinking hard and understanding your whys when adding new features but sometimes it also means making the decision to remove a service when you know you should not have implemented it in the first place.
An Accountable Manager
A team with a great sense of ownership requires an accountable manager. An accountable manager must instill this sense of ownership into his/her team members because they cannot sustain it long term on their own. Managers need to encourage and reward team members who:
- Care deeply about their customers' experience
- Ask clarifying questions when there are ambiguities
- Push back on implementing something without fully understanding use-cases or value
- Push back on implementing something that is unsustainable
- Follow up on their commitments (even if they decide they can't do them)
- Prioritize fixing bugs
- Do not assume that someone else will take care of things
- Do not blame others for mistakes, and instead ask how they can prevent the same mistakes going forward.
A sense of ownership is a state of mind that requires constant care by the whole team. Teams that have a sense of ownership operate at a different level. Team members can count on each other. They also learn to make hard decisions which help them work in a more sustainable environment in the long term.