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Exploring Execution vs. Ownership


July 27, 2004

Tick. Tick. Tick. While watching the clock, the moments slip away ever so slowly. They seem to drip incessantly like a water faucet that can never be completely shut off. Having never been incarcerated, I can only imagine this is a common thought. The slow ticking away of time consumes more than just prisoners awaiting release. It consumes your co-workers, and to no avail.

Work can be a prison where your co-workers are slaves, or it can be a pack of antelopes running together to find new plains and waters. The difference in the two is little more than perspective. Not your perspective, but each person's perspective in the organization. In this article, we will explain the defining characteristics and behaviors of each group of people, and some basic skills for transforming one into the other.

Prisoners of Execution

We've all met a prisoner of execution. They watch the clock and even when they aren't watching, they seem to know exactly how much time is left before being furloughed to their night at home. They trudge through each day investing their time, but not their minds. They click away at buttons and type away on the keyboard, but their heart is not in it. They are physically present, but mentally absent.

Monster.com recently ran a series of ads where children spouted phrases such as "I want to claw my way up to middle management" and "I want to have a brown nose." They encapsulate the loss of dreams as employees. They speak to the masses that are prisoners of execution. They work only to collect their paycheck and only as much as they feel is necessary.

From a business perspective, prisoners of execution look like valuable resources on the surface. They come in on time, they don't complain that often, and generally don't make much ruckus. The reason for their lack of complaints is that their mind is not invested in the success of the organization. Not being invested in the success of the organization means there is no need to try and fix anything that prevents success.

The Power of Ownership

Owners of an organization behave differently. Every moment seems too brief. The clock hands spin round and round in seemingly increasing speed. There is never enough time to make the organization better. The difference in effectiveness is profound. The value that an owner provides to an organization is substantially different than that of a person who is a prisoner of execution.

Of course, not every owner is a true owner of the organization; however, they do show ownership in the organization. They feel like they are a part of the solution and, because of that, they bring their minds with them to work each morning fully engaged and trying to remove the barriers to the organization's success.

As a whole, they are much more effective than prisoners of execution. Not only can they do what they've always been doing, but also they can evaluate why, and change it when it no longer makes sense. This is immensely powerful because owners are constantly making minor adjustments to their work to make it as good as possible, not to mention that engaged owners rarely complain or worry about the extra time they spend working.

You can think of someone who feels ownership in an organization as an alert driver. They aren't really following a straight line down the highway. In reality, there are a number of small changes happening every minute. A small amount of pressure changes the speed of the car. A slight adjustment to the steering wheel puts the car in the middle of the appointed lane. Prisoners of execution do not and cannot make those minor adjustments. Following the analogy, they are the drivers who are swerving all over their lane, speeding up and slowing down at random. They are the drivers who are described as "accidents waiting to happen." This is because they are unable to make changes until the problem has become so big there is no way to ignore it.

Owners are, as a bunch, a more rowdy group because they care: they make waves. They try to make changes and take appropriate risks. All of these things are reasons that many organizations squash the natural born leaders they have. They shackle them with processes, procedures, hierarchies, and other structures that encourage them not to get out of line and not to make the waves that an engaged person makes.

Each of us is born with an innate desire to master our own world. As my two-year-old keeps reminding me, he thinks in terms of "Mine" and "Alex do." We are all born with this until the world we live in conditions us to stop challenging, striving, and changing. Through our parenting, educational system, and organizational hierarchies, we force this natural tendency out of people. It's time to get it back.

Prisoner Release Program

In your organization, you need a prisoner release program. You need to release the prisoners. You don't have time for them to hold you back. There are two ways that your prisoner release program should be operating. Most organizations have one, but not the other.

Termination of Employment

Terminating someone for poor performance is something that most managers have been faced with at one time or another, and if you haven't, you will. Whether the person failed to adapt when the business changed, you or someone else made a bad-hiring decision, or problems have just gone on too long, everyone will need to release a prisoner of execution back into the market pool.

Although these situations are never fun, one thought makes it easier for me to understand. Releasing an employee allows them to connect with an organization more able to use their talents and engage them in such a way that they feel ownership.

Most organizations use this as their only prison release program. Unfortunately, they're largely trading (prison transfer to follow the analogy) poor performers with their peers in the industry and local market. The painful reality that most organizations blindly refuse to face is that there are tragically few people who still have the innate desire to take on ownership in an organization and have the talents to help make that happen.

Ownership Apprenticeship

Some organizations have adopted a better approach to the problem. They recognize that organizations are structured to squash the innate instinct to take on ownership of the organization's success, and take steps to fight the natural progression of things and, in some cases, can even reverse it.

Despite the organizational tendencies to squash ownership, it is possible to encourage people to take ownership. Here are some simple things that you can do in your organization to start an Ownership Apprenticeship Program:

  • Make everyone feel safe - One of the prerequisites for being able to communicate your true feelings and to take risks is to feel safe. This means that mistakes are not viewed as fatal flaws and that appropriate risks are rewarded, whether they work out or not.
  • Take the time to inform - It's difficult to take ownership of something that you don't understand. If your employees don't understand how the organization is doing, or how your group is doing, how can you expect them to help you "right the ship?"
  • Connect their actions to the results of the organization - Working everyday, it's easy not to see how your contributions impact the bottom line or are making a difference. Owners want to feel they are important and are making a difference. Connecting employees to the organization helps them to understand their importance.
  • Focus on results, not on steps - When giving instructions or reviewing the results of a set of actions, focus on the results, not the steps the person followed. The results are what count in business. Prisoners of execution want and sometimes need step-by-step instructions. Owners will fill in the gaps as long as you have given them sufficient direction to understand the framework of what you are asking for. You are not seeking to quit giving direction, rather you're looking to focus on giving the direction and letting them figure out what roads they are going to take to reach the destination.
  • Learn about them - Learning about a person may sound like a waste of time. You have results to generate and you are going to do that, no matter what it takes. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. You can't just will something into being. You need the support of everyone working with you and to get that, you have to show you truly care about them. Caring about them means caring about things they care about. You can't care about things that you don't know. Take the time to learn what motivates them in order to match assignments with what they will enjoy. In this way, they will automatically become an owner rather than you trying to encourage the behavior.

Parting notes from the prison yard

No organization that I've ever seen has this exactly right. Some organizations have managers that are very good at helping to break people out of their shells; however, most organizations don't have nearly enough of them.

If you're struggling with getting people engaged and taking ownership in the results, you are not alone. Just do your best and, when all else fails, toss the keys to the inmates and ask them what they need to be able to take ownership for the organization's success or failure.

Author's Note: If you've been reading this as a supervisor, manager, leader, etc., I'm talking to you. Whenever you have a role that makes you responsible or partially responsible for others, you need to take steps to protect the only truly renewable resource that an organization has - its people.

About the Author

Robert Bogue, MCSE (NT4/W2K), MCSA, A+, Network+, Server+, I-Net+, IT Project+, E-Biz+, CDIA+ has contributed to more than 100 book projects and numerous other publishing projects. He writes on topics from networking and certification to Microsoft applications and business needs. Robert is a strategic consultant for Crowe Chizek in Indianapolis. Some of Robert's more recent books are Mobilize Yourself!: The Microsoft Guide to Mobile Technology, Server+ Training Kit, and MCSA Training Guide (70-218): Managing a Windows 2000 Network. You can reach Robert at Robert.Bogue@CroweChizek.com.

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