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Ownership: The Key to Transforming Your Team or Organization

Transforming the culture of an organization or team is not easy. It is a long-term process. It doesn’t happen overnight. And, typically, it is not a smooth ride. There are ups and downs, moments of excitement, feelings of progress and success, as well as moments of frustration that things are not moving fast enough or not at all.

There are three typical phases in any transformational process: (1) creation and launch, (2) concentrated effort and execution, and (3) momentum and breakthrough.

The first phase of creation and launch is the easiest phase of the process and typically very energizing. In this phase, people envision and commit to a compelling future state for their organization and/or team, and everyone is excited and hopeful about achieving a great vision.

The second phase of concentrated effort and execution is the hardest and most challenging phase of any transformation journey. In this phase, people have to work hard to start achieving the objectives they took on in the creation and launch phase, while at the same time continue to run their day-to-day business. So, in this phase, people have to manage two jobs – creating the new future AND maintaining the existing. Juggling these two worlds requires foresight, vision and stance.

It actually becomes even more challenging – in the second phase people have to put their heads down and execute on what they took on in phase one, and it usually takes time before they can see the fruits of their labor. I often refer to it as putting in 10 units of effort in order to get 1 unit of progress/results. So, you can appreciate why people need to keep believing and operating with their future state in mind.

Think of it through the “caterpillar-to-butterfly” analogy. In phase one, the caterpillar gets excited about the prospect of being a butterfly who is free to roam with no restrictions. Then, in the second phase, the caterpillar finds himself inside the cocoon and suddenly life doesn’t look as exciting as it did in phase one. In fact, any normal caterpillar can become discouraged quite quickly about the whole butterfly idea. Suddenly, becoming a butterfly seems much less achievable and attractive than before.

This is exactly the emotional roller coaster organizations and teams go through in their transformation process – especially in the second phase.

Here is an example: I was working with a large service company on their transformation. They wanted to take their culture, performance and results to a new level. In phase one, they created a very powerful and exciting future vision and strategy that everyone felt genuinely excited about. Their strategy included initiatives that were designed to change the game in key areas that were important to them.

Then it was time to execute on these new initiatives and it wasn’t easy at all. Every time I would come to the organization for coaching sessions people would stop me in the hallways to brief me on how things were going.

I was getting two different types of reports from different people – some would pull me into their office to tell me how well things were going. Others stopped me to complain and tell me how badly things were going.

Many of the people who were complaining to me about the process seemed to be telling me that “my program wasn’t working.”

This mindset of reduced ownership for the change is very typical in phase two. The problem with thinking that the program is my program is that this is neither true nor empowering. This point of view reflects lack of ownership.

When I help an organization go to the next level, I facilitate programs to bring about change. However, I always make a point to remind people that they are not participating in my program. Rather, I am supporting them in their program. That paradigm of ownership is much more effective and empowering.

In fact, my ability to help the organization in its transformation is in direct correlation to the level of ownership the organization has toward their transformation process. So, I am constantly pushing on that aspect. The power and magic of transformation is in the ownership.

The big question of ownership for any team is: What future are you going to prove right?

It may seem an odd question at first. But, if you think about it – everyone is always proving something right, by default or by design. Either that their transformation will work and therefore is working OR that it won’t work, and therefore it isn’t working. That’s what the phrase – the game is over before it began – means.

When a team owns their process and they are out to prove that it works, they will go out of their way to figure it out. They won’t waste time complaining because that just doesn’t change anything. Think of it as “making lemonades from lemons” rather than complaining that “the lemons are so sour.”

Phase two takes time and a lot of perseverance. It’s not about perfection but about progress – continuing to drive progress and own the journey.

The third phase of momentum and breakthrough is the most rewarding phase of the transformation journey. But it only happens when the team stays the course in phase two. Unfortunately, so many teams fail in their transformational process because they simply don’t stay the course in phase two. They lack ownership, foresight and perseverance.

But, when they do, things start picking up and taking off, and in a hockey stick trend the team starts achieving momentum, results and breakthroughs beyond their expectation and imagination.

Photo by: Laura Bittner

Why most teams are not strong at making decisions and sticking to them

How many times have you experienced the following scenario?

The team discusses an important challenge or opportunity that is critical to the organization’s future. The conversation goes on and on without resolution, as different people have divergent opinions about the best course of action. When the team tries to bring it to a conclusion, they are no closer to alignment. They leave the meeting “agreeing to disagree.”

Such meetings are worse than a waste of time: they actually damage the team, which is no closer to making the necessary decisions and assuming responsibility for them. Unfortunately, people have stayed within their comfort zones at the expense of moving the organization forward in new and dynamic ways.

Many times, this happens because leaders and managers either lack the courage to take a stand or they don’t understand their role as leaders. Often, people simply don’t know how to effectively manage conversations.

People seem to be so attached to their opinions and points of view that they simply don’t listen or can’t hear what their colleagues are saying. As a result, they can’t tell the difference between what is essential to moving the conversation forward and what is merely a matter of preference, form or cosmetic.

They want others to view and express things the way they do. But, in diverse teams that is not going to happen, and quite frankly it shouldn’t. In fact, one of the strengths of a diverse team is the ability of its members to look at things from multiple angles and points of view in order reach a richer and more complete conclusion.

But, reaching a conclusion is the key. And, this is what most teams don’t do well.

I often see team members arguing about important details even though they actually agree with each other on the principle or direction.  Instead of building upon each other, they react too quickly with “I disagree” only to say the same thing in their own words. This slows the discussion to a snail’s pace and makes everyone mentally and physically exhausted.

Another ailment: people opine endlessly about things without ever saying “therefore I propose” and moving the discussion forward toward a decision.

Discussions that spin in a directionless manner suck the energy out of the team. Although people remain seated around the table, they begin to silently give up and mentally disengage. This fuels negative underground chatter and background noise, as well as cynicism about meetings. In most organizations, the general sentiments about meetings are “too many” and “most are a waste of time”.

But it gets worse! When teams make decisions based on compromise and lack of alignment, people say all the right things – just to get the tortuous meeting over – but they leave the discussions not genuinely owning its conclusion, outcome and decision. When circumstances press, people have no problem paying lip service to the decisions.

Reflect on your own experience – have you ever looked back after these meetings and felt the frustrating feeling: “we just spent hours discussing and agreeing to something important, and people still go off and do what they want regardless of the decision?”

That dynamic is more damaging to the team and organization than if you didn’t make a decision in the first place.

Effective leaders and managers know how important it is to have an open debate with honest, respectful listening because there is rarely a single right answer to any dilemma or question. They always look for ways to encourage their people to set aside their personal egos, agendas, and preferences in order to align with the collective wisdom of the group.

They instill in their teams a commitment to the type of conversation that leads to making choices, aligning behind those choices, and taking responsibility together. This requires courage.

There is never a justification to leave a conversation “agreeing to disagree”. It is always a cop-out.

Of course, some topics are complex and may require a number of meetings and conversations to gather the necessary input and to digest it as a group. But, paralysis by analysis is always an excuse to avoid taking a stand.

Organizations that achieve 100 percent alignment behind a goal that is 80 percent right have a much greater chance of success than those where people are 80 percent aligned behind a goal that is 100 percent right. How motivated are those who are not aligned to work towards the success of a goal they have not endorsed? They are the ones watching and waiting to say: “I told you so.”

Obviously, it is scary to step up to the plate and take full responsibility for a goal or direction that is uncertain, controversial, difficult to achieve, or politically incorrect. But, when team members find the courage to make the tough choices, they are immediately more powerful. They are able to apply their energy towards proving their choices right rather than wasting energy on proving others wrong.

If an entire team is behind one direction – even if it is only 80 percent correct – if they truly align, commit, and have each other’s backs, it is astounding what can be accomplished.

Organizational politics at its worst

The real strength and health of an organization is tested in tough times. When things are good and there is plenty of money, resources and success to go around; people tend to be more content with what they have. They also seem to have more tolerance and “generosity” about other people’s success, including people who are doing even better than they are.

But – in times of turbulence and change, especially when organizational borders are being redefined or when there are significant work force or expense reductions and restructures, the true color of the organization is revealed.

Unfortunately, in so many cases, when this happens the political deadly claws and sharp teeth come out and then you can see the ugliness of organizations in full swing. People seem to become more selfish, they work in the dark to position themselves and their agendas, even at the expense of throwing others who, up to that moment were their friends and alias, under the bus. One of my HR clients expressed it as: “When the year is tough people fight internally instead of rallying together to fight our external enemies.”

In this scenario some people emerge as winners and others as losers. But the ultimate loss is for the organization as a whole. The overall team is robbed of the optimal outcome. The “winners” drive the agenda in a self-serving way, and eventually the “losers” get discouraged. They disengage when they realize that no one really cares about their view or the greater good of the organization. Key decisions are made only by those who will gain from them in the future. And, an entire pool of tribal knowledge, expertise and experience is being ignored, excluded or disenfranchised.

For example, a traditional hardware technology company acquired a new age software and services company in order to escape the commoditization of its legacy business and migrate into the higher value market. These two companies had very different business expertise, views and models. When it came time for integration, instead of planning and executing the integration together, the traditional hardware leaders kept dominating the discussions and swaying the decisions in their favor. Many of the acquired team members ended up leaving and while some of the acquiring leaders felt victorious because they secured senior positions in the new structure, things continued to be shaky for a long time and the company had to adjust the model several times. All this could have been avoided if the acquiring and acquired teams would have worked together to bring the best of both worlds for the good of the whole. I have seen this type of dynamic play out in similar ways in so many organizations.

When people do work together to come up with the best outcome and structure for the success of the entire company things are quite different. Everyone puts their personal agendas and egos aside. Instead, managers and employees put their best thinking forward to come up with a shared future state that best serves the next chapter of the organizational evolution.

Even the people who know that if they do the right thing for the company they would drive themselves out of a job would rather do that then look back in frustration and regret.

There is nothing people detest more than to feel that they and their colleagues cannot do, or haven’t done the right things for the good of the company because of the big, ugly political dynamic of their organization.

And, unfortunately this still happens too often in most organizations.

Don’t confuse Commitment with Compliance

Many managers and leaders assume their people automatically will commit to a new direction or strategy. They believe they should not have to ask for people’s commitment. They come from a school of thought that employees are obliged to align when a boss askes for it. It’s a belief to the effect of, “We shouldn’t have to beg you to get on board. That’s what you are paid to do. This isn’t a democracy. As soon as you understand the rationale and valid business reasons for this direction or strategy, you should be fully behind it.” This assumption is incorrect and dangerous. We find that this attitude often stems from a view that compliance is the same as commitment. It isn’t.

Let’s be clear, low levels of commitment do not mean that people won’t do their jobs. Fear of being fired for sub-optimal job performance is enough to motivate most people to do what it takes to keep their positions. Plus, from a less cynical viewpoint, most people are proficient enough at their jobs to perform it without applying their full passion, dedication, intelligence and commitment. We can assume the Pyramids were not built by what anyone would call an enthusiastic work force. Therefore, lukewarm organizational commitment to a strategy or initiative will not inherently guarantee its failure.

But true commitment goes far beyond compliance. When people are committed, they behave differently in key ways:

  • They invest their hearts and souls in the cause
  • They perform their roles with passion and energy
  • They take on bold promises and commitments
  • They follow through with extraordinary levels of tenacity and perseverance; they don’t give up
  • They look out for opportunities to improve, fix and perfect things
  • They genuinely care for others who are on the journey with them

A committed organization is one whose employees work harder to accomplish their tasks. It’s a place where people anticipate problems and resolve them early, before they fester. Excuses are not tolerated — only answers and actions to how problems are going to be fixed. People love coming to work. They’re more productive, creative, attentive and aware.

Contrast that with an environment of compliance. People don’t take the new initiatives to heart. They don’t ache for it or want it in their gut. If it fails, they don’t lose sleep over it. In fact, they brush it off as someone else’s fault. Because they don’t view the game as their own, they avoid expressing their views including when they feel things are not working the way they should. And, if things fail they have no problem taking out the “I told you so” card. They detach themselves emotionally from its success or failure, and by making few or no guarantees to deliver specific outcomes, they are less likely to see a personal role in making the initiatives happen.

If you wanted to join a team or bet on a team’s success, which of the two would you want to be a part of, or bet on?

 Photo by: Chris Potter