Last week I was the agile conference in Nashville. I had one session to present. Unfortunately (and very fortunately) it was the very last session on the very last day. That meant I had all week to worry about the presentation AND that the people attending would be exhausted. Oh yes, and finally, I was up against Arlo Belshee and Esther Derby in two other sessions. (I’m a very good complainer.)
Oh, the good part, I was co-presenting this with Steve Peha. And Steve is a perfectionist. To put it mildly, I’m not. So Steve and I spent all week preparing for this session – one that I had taught in multiple forms over the years. And I thought that there wasn’t much more to add or any new insights. Boy, was I wrong! So wrong, in fact, that I’ve got multiple blog posts that I’m sure are going to result from the week of preparing together. This is the first of these blogposts.
Ok, enough rambling (for now). Let’s dig in. Ownership. Yes, we all know it is important. In the software world, we’ve all learned from Christopher Avery about the responsibility process model and how we go through several stages: blame, justification, shame, obligation, and finally ownership. And we know about this in all disciplines – business, education, government, etc…. Ownership is a well known (although not so well practiced) behavior for success.
So what’s new? Well, it first came out in a discussion late Sunday night over coffee. We were using some of our own life examples about what safety, respect, and ownership meant to us and testing my theory that if you have these three things, you are in a much better position to get great results – especially in a team.
And so as we were working through Steve’s example:
I was having a rough relationship with a more senior product owner in the company. We couldn’t seem to work together. He’d give me some requirements to take to my team and I thought I’d understood them. At the end of the iteration, he’d say that we’d failed to meet his goals and I felt dejected.
And it kept happening. No matter what I did, I couldn’t find a way to get aligned on what he wanted. It was pretty bad. I felt unable to do my job well.
It was so bad, that I basically said “ok, I’m just going to take notes without discussion and then do my best to work on this myself offline. I’m going to make the best out of a terrible situation.”
So I’ve known Steve for several years, and he is really smart – I mean the type of smart that you wouldn’t believe. Plus, he is humble. He is a domain expert in the field – in fact he blew anyone away at the company in that regards. He knew the domain significantly more than the senior product owner. And so, for me, I could see that he probably intimidated the hell out of the other product owner and the other guy was just acting out; trying to feel less incompetent by pointing the finger at Steve in this way.
But Steve couldn’t see that, I could see he was still frustrated by the situation. In fact, he felt he had taken ownership of the situation and made the best out of a very bad situation. And, in a way, he had. He had taken ownership of the requirements to be written. But that obviously did not lead to success.
What Steve had done was the easy part. It is also the part that doesn’t really matter as much. As we talked about it Steve came up with a new insight:
I blew it! I fooled myself into thinking I had taken ownership of the situation, but all I did was create more work for myself. I dropped the relationship because it was too painful.
Steve had not taken ownership of his relationship to the senior product owner. He just let it go. And, in a team, that is exactly the wrong thing to do. If you are in a team setting, you will be much less likely to succeed if you only focus on the problem – or your part of the problem. Even if you focus on the entire problem – your part and everyone else’s part – you are still in a bad spot. You’ve created more work for you and ignored your relationship to other team members. You need them to succeed.
So, to maximize your chance of success, you must own the relationship also. No, you can’t control anyone else’s actions, and I’m not suggesting that you do. What I am suggesting, is that for successful teamwork you must own the relationship as well.
Once you’re there mentally – owning the problem and relationship – you are ready. That means not blaming others for the failed relationship; not justifying why it deserves to be a bad one because the other person is an asshole; not making any excuses. You roll up your sleeves and work on possibly the single most challenging and rewarding work there is on teams; working on relationships with your colleagues.
The ‘how’ of fixing relationships is covered in many books, and I’ve got much to say on the subject. But that will come out in later posts. What I want you to remember is this: true ownership is ownership of the problem and your relationships to your team members. All too often we fool ourselves into thinking we are coming from ownership by only owning the problem.