I think ownership is an interesting concept. Early North American Indians did not have the concept of “ownership” as we know it when it came to the land they inhabited. That concept of ownership was brought to the then new world by the colonists who had a centuries-old concept and tradition regarding ownership. In general, they conceived of land as personal property to be used for the realization of economic and material gains. This seems to be the definition of ownership that has been perpetuated both down through time as well as throughout business. The single possible exception to this ownership concept in business can best be seen when there is a performance problem. Then it appears that like the early North American Indians, no one owns any of the land on which everyone is standing.
There is an ancient Indian proverb that goes:
“Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
I like this one as it nicely defines the stewardship responsibility that was felt. They didn’t own it, but they were responsible for taking care of it. It is admittedly a somewhat different variation on the concept of ownership but it was an important one. They didn’t own a piece of the Earth, but they were responsible for it on the whole.
In business, these days it more and more seems that if you do not directly own it, then you are not responsible for it. And just as importantly, it seems that if you don’t own it, you are not responsible for taking care of it. It looks like the concept of stewardship has been lost as we have matrixed and processed business organizations over time.
As we continue to look to decompose what were judged as complex business actions into ever more granular, simpler, repeatable activities to create our processes, we “own” ever smaller pieces of the whole. We no longer have ownership, stewardship or even responsibility for an issue or activity, but rather just a continually smaller piece of it.
It appears that the concept of “if one person being responsible for solving a problem is good, then multiple people trying to solve the same problem must be better” is now being applied. This has given rise to the now popular concept in business of multiple owners for the resolution of business and performance issues. This in turn has given rise to what I like to refer to in the following axiom:
“If there are multiple owners for the resolution of an issue, there is in fact no owner for the resolution of the issue.”
While everyone will be involved in the process used to hopefully resolve the issue, each participant will be primarily focused (and measured) on their specific aspect of the solution, not the overall performance. No one person will have the higher-level view required to change, modify or even remove any of the defined steps in the process. The result of this sort of an issue resolution structure can usually be seen in the progress report meetings.
You can tell the overall ownership of the issue resolution is lost when there are no “difficult” questions being asked in the progress report meetings. Each group will report on their specific area of responsibility, and as is usually the case, they will try to put their best foot forward in their report. And since no one reporting group wants to incite similar difficult questions to be asked of them, no difficult questions will be asked. The net result is the presenting of several reports detailing the high points of any of the several aspects of the issue, while the actual primary overall issue remains largely unimproved or unresolved.
A few examples of the issue resolution detachment can be easily shown. In a time when business profitability is the overall issue, it is usually each sub-organization’s position to show how their costs are either at, or slightly under their proposed budget levels. If every group is under budget on costs, then why is profitability an issue? It is obvious that the overall profitability problem is not their responsibility since they are well within their cost objective guidelines.
There can obviously be several causes for this issue. Increased competition causing either reduced market share (volume) or reduced prices in order to maintain the current volume are a couple of simple reasons that come quickly to mind. While each group’s costs may be in line with their budget, something else is causing the margins to miss as a whole.
An immediate focus should obviously be to see what can be done to increase the top line to help alleviate the margin issue. However, there must also be an overall owner of the margin issue who would also have the responsibility to challenge the various cost budget oriented groups to reduce their costs as an alternative action to help bring margins back into line, just in case increasing sales turns out to be more difficult than expected. Someone has to have the responsibility to say that in reduced margin times like these, meeting your cost budget isn’t good enough. Someone has to own the overall issue and have the ability to adjust the discreet aspects of the process, such as reducing component group cost budgets, in order to achieve the margin objective.
Taking this example the next step further, when looking at the sales process, the business development team may be generating all sorts of customer contacts, however for some reason these contacts may not resolving into the required volume of sales. Are the right types of contacts being generated? Have customer product preferences shifted? Are the correct markets being addressed? The list can obviously go on.
This is not going to be a discourse on Greek Philosophy, asking the Plato-esque question: If every aspect of the problem-solving process is being correctly administered, why isn’t the issue being correctly resolved? I tend to try to be a little more pragmatic. I usually follow a couple of very simple rules in situations like this:
The first is: If what you are doing is not generating the results you want, then you had better do something different. As simple as this sounds, it is becoming increasingly difficult to implement in an increasingly process driven organization. Change imputes risk and almost everyone is risk averse. That is the reason for the rise of the process. It is supposed to reduce the risk of change and variation in business.
I think we have all been in situations where whatever the approach that was being used was not working, but the prevailing feeling was that it would work the next time, so it was best not to change it. Einstein made reference to the sanity of these types of decisions. It seems that sometimes the fear of change is greater than the fear of continued failure.
The second is: If you want a problem solved, make sure someone is identified as the owner of the problem, has the responsibility of solving the problem and has the ability and authority to make the changes necessary to solve the problem. Someone has to be responsible to make a decision as to what must be done. When there is a committee in charge, there is safety in numbers and anonymity when it comes to issue resolution.
Issue resolution is about leadership. If there is a business performance issue, that means that whatever is being done is not working and must be changed. Experience has shown that change does not occur spontaneously. It must be led; otherwise organizational momentum will mitigate any group change effort.
I don’t think leaders shy away from issue ownership. On the contrary I think leaders look at issues as opportunities to improve the business. It seems that the process driven organization may be slightly at odds with a leadership oriented organization in that it holds the process responsible for success and not the leader. Processes are at their best when variations are minimized.
Unfortunately, when organizational performance is lacking it is an operational variation or change that must be called for in order to generate the desired variation or change in performance. It is at that time that a leader is needed to own the issue, instead of a process.