A culture of ownership: Start small and make it real

by 26 Aug 2014
There’s a great scene in a Ben Stiller movie, where his character is trying to board a plane. He offers his boarding pass to the agent at the airport gate, but she politely explains they’re boarding by section and she hasn’t called his row yet. The camera then pans to show a completely empty gate area. Through the rest of the scene, no other customers appear and the agent stands with a fixed smile on her face, while the increasingly frustrated Stiller character waits for his row to be called.
 
Why do some people seem to do their jobs mindlessly, while others choose to apply their judgment and personal energy to getting the job done? 
 
The quest for discretionary effort

Pretty much every client we work with would like their team to bring more discretionary effort and take greater personal ownership of business outcomes: whether it’s getting people onto a plane, resolving mortgage applications, or helping customers get their car started. Responsibility, accountability and passion are perennial favourites among corporate value sets – which too often read like wish-lists.
 
Meanwhile, over 85% of Australians now work in the service economy, where applying judgment and taking ownership are key drivers of success. Any repeatable task that can be captured in a simple process is being automated by a machine or off-shored where labour is cheaper. What remain in our workplaces are the knowledge tasks, requiring complex decisions, trade-offs and problem-solving. We increasingly need every employee to be independently making on-strategy choices for both the business and the customer.
 
The ideal employee would naturally adopt any behaviours useful to achieving the right outcomes: no one would need to tell them to innovate or collaborate. If they saw that the existing process had unnecessary steps in it, they would simplify it. If they found that speaking to another person helped them get things done better, they would seek that person’s input. 
 
We usually associate this way of thinking with resourceful, self-employed professionals, or small, ‘nimble’ businesses. And it does seem the larger an organisation gets, the harder it can be to unlock the judgment and creativity of the people within it. It makes sense: it’s hard to feel ownership of the outcome if you’re part of a team of 1,000.
 
Why? Because caring about outcomes means hard work and carries the risk of disappointment. It’s only worth doing if we see a return on that effort.
 
If an employee feels that changing customer or business outcomes is impossible in their role, if they feel their efforts will be futile, then they’ll focus their energies on something they can master instead: pleasing their boss, getting home earlier, or keeping a tidy desk. Ironically, the infuriating gate agent in the Stiller film was taking ownership of something too – not the customer outcome but something she felt she could own - the process. 

Make a difference - it's good for you
 
Most people actually want to be more empowered and to feel some ownership in their work. They want to be making a difference, to feel their time is worthwhile. Gallup’s 12 question employee engagement research probes for whether “at work, my opinions seem to count” and whether I “feel my job is important”. People want to have a job that engages and develops their judgment and creativity as whole human beings, not robots. 
 
And because ownership is what people want, it is possible to achieve even in the largest organisations. 
 
We heard recently about a major service company, encouraging its employees to ask their friends and neighbours if they had any problems with the services offered by the company. If employees found anyone in their community with unresolved issues, they would be empowered (and rewarded) to own those issues and personally find a resolution. The example given was an employee putting up signs in her local gym, saying: “I work at X Company. If you have any questions or problems with your service, contact me here.”
 
And we’ve been interviewing staff at one of our client sites, piloting a new way of working within a very large organisation. One woman in a processing team looked into camera and said: “Before I would have kicked the application back, if there was any error in the form. Now I picture the customer who sent it in, and I’ll do whatever I can to fix it. And it feels great [*].” 
 
Genuine ownership

The key is making staff feel that the opportunity for ownership is genuine. If they’re going to take the risk of caring, they need to believe there’s a real chance of making a difference. And let’s face it; we may have made false promises on that front before. Too often we say we want to empower staff but we don’t give them the authority or resources to follow through, we don’t provide a safe environment for them to try or to challenge, or we fail to show clear leadership about the priorities.
 
The only way to make people believe the opportunity for ownership is real, is to actually make it real. Your staff know everything: which strategy is working and which isn’t, who’s competent and not competent. They know whether or not there’s room in your business for their voice.
 
So it’s often better to start small: piloting greater empowerment with a few teams, rather than mandating change (or launching a new value) across the entire organisation at once. 
 
If we work with small groups and support their managers, we can solicit ideas to improve processes and follow through immediately. We can remove barriers, celebrate the right outcomes and share stories of ownership. Then we can to make the change real for those teams and inspiring to their colleagues nearby. 
 
Applying judgment and personal energy, like any other meme, is viral. For one client, we’re physically relocating teams that are demonstrating ownership, and placing them where they’ll be more visible to the rest of the organisation.  Then it’s a question of critical mass: once enough people start taking ownership, it becomes the way things are done around here.
 
[*paraphrased]
 
About the author
Kate Messenger is Managing Director, Meme Partners
 

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