Ownership and Initiative

An Executive View of Career- and Success-Limiting "Boxes"

I recently talked with a VP of Development for a product line business unit about the most pressing issues in his group as they worked toward challenging schedules and customer commitments. He spoke about one potential leverage point for getting it all done -- combating "a pervasive misunderstanding within the group about individual performance." Here's what he said:
"A number of individual contributors and first level managers evidently feel stalled in their careers and have decided that it's not their fault. They see others on a fast track, being promoted and heading up interesting design or customer initiatives; they believe that their own lack of movement is due to not getting given the same plum assignments, not being given the same chances for visibility. The solution, they think, is if they just move over to person X's group and get to work on project Y, then they'll be set and on a fast track.

"The reality is, we didn't 'give' those assignments to any of those high performing 'favored' employees. They got them because they stepped up. They saw a problem, suggested a way of fixing it, took responsibility and made it happen. They showed they were drivers with their first taking of initiative. Past that we knew we could point them at any problem and it would get handled. In fact, they often bring the problems, and their solutions, to us before we even ask.

"Any of those 'constrained' people could take the same initiative right where they are, and make for themselves the same opportunities and visibility, and win the same promotions. (If they had done so before now, some of our commitments wouldn't have been so challenging to meet.) But they're operating daily in a box of their own making. And they've ended up putting a box around their own careers. "
This conversation conjured up a powerful picture for me. The constraints and ultimate frustration of operating in a box; the sense of freedom and possibilities from breaking out of a box.

But how to do it?

To me, the key to coming out of our own personal boxes is about taking ownership and initiative for goals and results. Whether you're a project manager, an individual team member, or a line manager running an organization, your level of ownership of the business goals and outcome of your work, and the initiative you take to overcome roadblocks and generally make things happen, are the only things that will keep you out of self-imposed or externally-imposed behavior boxes. And the degree to which you work unfettered of such constraints will surely make the difference between failure and success of the effort at hand, and drive your career options as well.

So what does lack of ownership and initiative look like and why do I say it results in bad boxes? A couple of quick stories:

A colleague prepared to move into a new office space. The day before move-in, a walkthrough revealed that the suite has not been painted as promised -- it was still dingy and sad-looking from the previous tenant, not the exciting sparkling-new space he was eager to move into. Anger, frustration, let down. Upon being challenged, the property manager insisted the suite was only to be 'touched up' -- even though the lease mandated a paint job and the onsite maintenance person took the phone to insist a touch up wouldn't cut it . Many phone calls, much stress and anger, and escalation to the real estate VP later, the walls got painted. So what was the problem?

Well, it was the property manager's own particular operating box. She believed that THE driving focus of her job was to limit expenditures at the property. No matter what. She was operating from within that very rigid box, outside which she would not do anything special to please a customer or handle a situation differently from the routine. She had no ownership of my colleagues' satisfaction -- no ownership of making sure there was a good outcome for the customer, and no concept of taking initiative to make such an outcome happen.

A new lead software engineer was hired by a small company for a very attractive salary to spearhead the development of new control software for a family of packaging equipment. The amount and complexity of software was a huge leap beyond previous releases of the platform and would require many customer-special configurations after release. Three weeks after the product's release, an emergency meeting was called: a customer had loaded software onto the machine � and their production line stopped working. It turns out that the newly hired software engineer, without any coordination with field support, was emailing software tweaks to different customers, and was not keeping a sacrosanct code baseline. Neither was he keeping track (except in his head) of who had what bug fixes, who was getting what special features, who had what version. As result, someone got a version that didn't work in their factory.

What had happened? At the highest level, it was about those boxes again. The software engineer was operating from a 'technical-only' box. He was not taking ownership for cost of upgrades, cost of configuration management mistakes and the resulting financial and trust-busting cost of customer's lines going down, the true life-cycle cost of the product. He had no full-featured sense of ownership of results at the customer based on his own work. He also had no sense that it was part of his job to take the initiative to define configuration management and release procedures the small company was obviously lacking. The Vice President, on the other hand, assumed no such box. He expected the well-paid head of a software effort to think beyond code functionality and take responsibility for code management -- including installation issues, configuration management approaches, serviceability and maintainability, and ultimately the experience of the customer using the system with no such failures.

So that's lack of ownership and initiative. How do we instead get to true ownership and initiative of goals and results with those who work for us and with us? Our own management and leadership responsibilities must include making sure everyone feels responsible for understanding and owning goals and results and their own related commitments:
  • The overall business goal: Everyone asks not "what is the work," but first, "what is the purpose of the upcoming work?" What are we trying to deliver to a customer and why -- what is their most pressing need, their particular measures of success? And what is the business goal of the company? Do we have to release a system by a certain date, even if not with all the possible features, to have the chance to gain significant market share? Do we have to meet a certain cost target to make money from it? Only when those goals are understood will individuals on the team be able to come up with the right ideas and make the best tradeoff decisions for the customers and the company, throughout the project.

  • The corresponding project results: In meaningful detail, what must the project deliver to achieve the business goals? What must the system look like to meet the cost targets and schedule date? What internal processes might be needed to enable us to meet the goals, e.g. new configuration management procedures to support a new level of customer special systems?

  • The commitments needed along the way to get there: How many schedules have slipped because someone didn't truly "own" their milestones -- did not take an attitude of extreme commitment to meeting dates all along the way? A slip at the end is usually made of up multiple smaller slips much earlier on. Team members must understand and be willing to drive to interim dates for their various project contributions.
As you can see, getting people to own purpose, results, and commitments means that they MUST understand the big picture, not just their own functional areas. If we keep individual team members in boxes by leaving them to their functional silos, we will reap what we have sown. We instead have to make opportunities to communicate and educate everyone on the big business picture:
  1. Involve them in business discussions to help them understand the bottom-line results needed and how their work fits:
    • Do you involve team members in business discussions? The co-creation of Project Charters or Project Vision documents by the team early on should focus first on customer needs and company business goals, then on key functionality to meet those goals.

    • Do team members understand how their technical decisions affect project results? Design/Project reviews in the early phases should include the schedule, project budget, product cost, and risk profile of each design alternative being considered.

    • Do they understand how their work fits into delivering results at different points? In team planning sessions, highlight major milestones and plan backwards to show how their work is critical to making the interim targets. Create milestone tables that don't just list milestone dates, but also list the critical 'driving tasks' from each functional group for meeting the major milestones.

  2. Model ownership through the questions you ask. Meetings are a fabulous opportunity to model the business-oriented mindset you want from every team member. In your project meetings and design reviews, demonstrate how team members can 'own' the goals and results through the questions they ask. For example, rather than accepting design alternatives decisions as-presented, make sure people are asking: "What are the costs of upgrade anticipated to be -- do they meet our Project Objectives?" "To hold the schedule for the Customer X contractual commitment, don't we need to consider leaving feature X until a subsequent release?" Even one person, regardless of title, can start to shift your entire team's mindset by asking such questions. Find them or create them by some pre-meeting coaching.

  3. Make team member's roles and responsibilities and duties explicit to banish accidental boxes. Make sure you haven't put someone in a box by setting tight constrained expectations, or not being explicit enough with your expectations. Use techniques such as Team Roles Lists that go beyond general high-level role titles to include detailed responsibilities, and even specific "duties." See our Team Roles and Responsibilities List template for more on this.

  4. Recognize and reward the initiative taken by people who are operating outside boxes. When they speak up with the right questions in meetings, reinforce the importance of their questions to the group. When they speak up for the customer, express your delight and the value of their perspective. In one-on-ones, look for opportunities to congratulate and further coach people on operating not in a box, but within the big picture instead. Use them as expert objective reviewers/contributors on other project -- and point out to them how their mindset is making them valuable and expanding their visibility and involvement in the company.
To take the next steps to banish any lurking boxes in your organization:
  • What outcomes, what customer satisfaction, what project results are falling short of what you wanted, what the company needs?

  • Is it a box problem? What boxes are people operating out of, and where did those boxes come from?

  • Determine what ownership of business goals, results, and commitments need to be better understood by the team and build in that learning to your project's requirements development and meetings and all your interactions with team members.

  • And finally, give your people explicit permission and encouragement to take initiative; and expect it through how their roles, responsibilities, duties, and milestone commitments are expressed. Then recognize it when it happens!
I'll close with a story about ownership and initiative in action. Recently a project manager I know took over a very high profile program that was floundering. The team had been struggling to make a decision on what technical approach to adopt; there were radically different "camps" about which approach was the right one and given the complex nature of the system and the customer base, it was a difficult call. Supposed decision-making meetings had been repeatedly descending into technical squabbles instead. After only a short time on board, the PM stepped back and asked about the big picture. "Why are we trying to solve this for everyone right away? Do we have 'hot' customers who need to be helped first? Can we get to a first decision on approach for critical customers and go from there?" Well DUH, as my 11-year-old would say. The answer from the top was yes. So with the next team meeting set for another in-depth technical review, my friend instead took them the big picture view of goals (solve the problem at these customers by date x) and results (solution must result in these kinds of operating specs being met). He led them through an explicit definition of reduced scope for a first-limited-delivery to satisfy those customers, and had them recommend the best technical approach within that context. This was not a technical decision for all time; the options under consideration for the long term would not be lost. But from a business perspective, the team HAD to get on with it. The team was able to objectively walk through the risks and rewards of each technical alternative for those specific customer situations. Previously silent, frustrated, or and/or arguing team members started voicing well-reasoned and even passionate bottom-line, customer-oriented opinions! After 2 hours the team emerged with agreed-upon recommendations for the initial technical approaches, ready to move forward once again.

Sound like magic? Nope, it was just ownership and initiative -- and not a box in sight!

Related Links
If you're looking for a non-boxy role model, consider the project manager who said "No Way" to some crazy shipment dates, right in front of the VP and the customer. (But in a constructive way!) Our guideline on speaking up can help you learn how to make your case, even when it's nerve-wracking. Make sure you've got the right people involved when creating your project plans, and that you share a common project vision.

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