PM Articles > Geof Lory > Engagement through Ownership

Engagement through Ownership

by Geof Lory

The rule of thumb is that a team should be optimally sized at six people, with allowance for a couple people either side. This is considered a good tradeoff between having sufficient team bandwidth to tackle a variety of work and optimize communication, and not allowing room for social loafing. Certainly the type of work and the relationships of the people, as well as several other factors, are major contributors to how far you can scale a team, but at some point, team size affects productivity.

Over the past several years our team has grown substantially in size, and the work has gotten more complex and interdependent. Additionally, we have team members in 12 states across four time zones. As both work and number of people grew, keeping everyone informed and aligned became a challenge. As complexity grew, it felt even more important that we include everyone in almost every communication. So, we added more structure to our communication and started relying on technical tools to facilitate interaction between team members. We were well down that slippery slope when we took on a large endeavor with a short deadline that just about broke the team.

After a thorough retrospective, the general feeling was that the poor communication that caused the problem could be fixed with better structure and clearer roles and responsibilities -- i.e., more bureaucracy. It wasn't long before our agile team model started to look like the more structured SAFe. (That alone should have told me we were going down the wrong path, but I won't get on that rant in this article.) After a few months in that model, it was clear we had not identified the real problem. Our problem was not one of structure, it was one of ownership, engagement, and accountability. For that, we needed a different approach, something deeper than just reorganizing and redefining roles.

Sure, there are some organizational and structural changes we needed to make to create an environment more conducive to enabling ownership. We split the work and the larger team into smaller teams, focused the scope of each team's work, and defined smaller, more specific deliverables.

These traditional approaches to improving productivity are all good, but alone they did not get us what we are really after. We want to create a sense of communal accountability and commitment. Easier said than done. We need to start with changing the context of the conversation.

To develop ownership, we had to start with choice. Choice is the necessary condition for ownership, and without ownership there can be no commitment or accountability. Creating choice is essential to team leadership. It starts with an invitation to a new conversation of curiosity over mandate and persuasion.

No choice, no ownership. No ownership, no responsibility.

As organizational leaders, we try to be helpful by providing advice and direction. But in reality, this advice is nothing more than a form of control. By exercising control, we invite those we advise and direct to surrender their sovereignty. When our guidance is taken as prescription, we reduce their choice, giving them permission to abdicate responsibility. No choice, no ownership. No ownership, no responsibility.

So, how do we get team members to choose ownership and engage more fully? It starts with questions, listening, and staying curious. Giving advice and answering questions has to be replaced with curiosity. Questions are more transformative because, properly asked, they create space for something new to emerge that is a product of the choices made by those answering the question, those we want to get engaged.

But staying truly curious is not easy. We want desperately to take the uncertainty out of the future and have a more predictable tomorrow. But why? What is the driver of prescription and the desire to know the future? If you know the future it is no longer the future, because by definition the future is uncertain. This is all about control and the desire for predictability.

But if you lead without choice, the future it can be no better than what you know today. How sad is that?

To encourage engagement and create a sense of personal choice, our questions cannot be answers in disguise. Answers in disguise narrow the focus, lead the conversation and remove the sense of choice. When our questions have a hidden agenda to maintain dominance, be right, or control the outcome, they design the future without the contribution of those who are being asked. It may feel kinder and gentler, or even faster and more helpful, but it will do nothing to create ownership because the choice was not really there.

Our questions need to be more powerful. They have to explicitly empower the person being asked the question. Powerful questions are sincerely ambiguous and intentionally personal so they can evoke a heartfelt reaction. They need to be ambiguous so as not to be prescriptive which would invite abdication of responsibility to provide an answer other than what the asker wants. They have to be personal so that answering the question takes a measure of meaningful investment. Most of us are not trained to ask powerful questions.

I attended a boarding school seminary for high school. For good and not so good reasons, life was highly governed. There were a lot of rules that took away our daily choices. Therefore, there were a lot of opportunities to violate those rules. I tended to challenge those rules often, especially when I didn't understand or agree with them. Several times, my insolent behavior required parental intervention. After the third such occasion, my father calmly offered, "Stay and play by the rules or we can go home to a different set of rules. Both are fine with your mom and me, but the choice is yours." I chose to stay. Recognizing that my circumstances were a product of my choices reframed everything I did after that, keeping me very engaged.

Our new teams are just starting on this change to choice and engagement, and we have a lot to learn, mostly about ourselves. I know that I will be personally challenged to ask powerful questions, listen, and stay curious. I know that it will feel slow and circuitous and challenge my patience. But I also know that the loss of productivity and creativity in team members who are not engaged far outweighs my personal inconvenience and frustrations.

I also know that there is more in the team than just what I or our leadership team have to offer or what we know today. The prospect of tapping into that possibility is as exciting as the process of engagement. And once the choice is made to engage, the accountability and commitment will take care of itself. Only then will we see the possible become the future.

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