Look inside an organisation and there will usually be people who hold different roles, each with differing perspectives from each other. In fact, even people within the same department may well have different perspectives, with contradictory viewpoints and opinions shared in meetings and workshops. These meetings can become animated, with different stakeholders enthusiastically stating their strongly held opinions.
Yet, however rife opinions are within organisations, action is somewhat rarer. Being able to identify issues with processes is valuable, however organisations also need people who can analyse those issues and define ways of improving things. For things to truly improve, ownership is crucial, and those within organisations who truly take ownership, show initiative and make things happen are likely to have a career advantage. This can sometimes involve the individual taking risks, working across silos, and going against the grain.
‘Perverse Incentives’: Avoiding Ownership Is Often Rewarded
The irony is that many organisations seem wired to dissuade individuals from taking ownership of issues. Imagine a situation where a call-centre worker notices that people are often calling in with a really simple, and routine query. Perhaps 10% of their calls relate to this one query. If they truly took ownership of the issue, they might start to ask relevant colleagues whether that information could be made prominently available on the company’s website. This would seem to be a win/win situation—customers don’t have to call in to ask the question and that frees people up in the call-centre to deal with more complicated cases.
However, if that call-centre worker is measured on the ‘number of completed calls’ they clear each day, they might actually appreciate those routine calls. A quick 30 second ‘routine’ call now and again builds up their stats so they can deal with the more complex ones at a later point. Their managers might even talk them out of taking the suggestion further. After all, the managers are probably incentivised by the team performance too. In this example the organisation seems to be deliberately wired to quash ownership and innovation.
Taking Ownership: Thinking Holistically and Working Across Silos
Of course, the call-centre example is a deliberately provocative one (and it’s unlikely that any sensible company would operate in that way), but the underlying principle is an important one. To truly take ownership, to grasp it rather than reluctantly accept it, often requires an individual to step back, think holistically, and understand processes and systems throughout (and beyond) the organisation. It might involve the individual accepting short-term pain, for long term organisational gain.
Taking ownership of issues can initially seem challenging as organisations typically have a formally defined structure, with distinct functions and departments that can appear siloed. Some departments might not like ‘outsiders’ asking questions. Yet it is possible—and in most cases desirable—to ignore those silos and actively look to collaborate with others in the organisation. In some situations, there are corporate hurdles that need to be overcome; internal politics, fiefdoms and ‘cross-charging’ of resources can make it more difficult, for example. Yet there is usually a way of overcoming these challenges, even if it involves starting by meeting informally at lunchtime and having watercooler conversations.
Business Analysts and Ownership
Ownership is at the very heart of business analysis. A BA will synthesise the viewpoints of different stakeholders, understand needs, and look at situations holistically. It’s crucial that BAs take ownership and don’t shy away from conflict or dodge tricky conversations. Business analysis involves giving unpopular messages and calling out the ‘elephant in the room’. Good business analysts, by their very nature, thrive on taking ownership. This is an area that will enhance a BA’s career.
Good business analysts also act indirectly as an ‘orchestrator of ownership’. They find problem areas that are not currently owned and call them out. They point out those ‘perverse incentives’ and political issues preventing ownership from being taken. They ‘lead by example’ and work with others to co-create a more holistic view of a situation. In doing so they identify problematic areas and seek ways of resolving them. They create the conditions where stakeholders—whatever their level of seniority—feel comfortable and empowered to raise suggestions.
It is worth considering these patterns when working on projects, and when problems are found with a process or system it can be interesting to ask, “who owns this?”, “who should own this?” and “why has nobody fixed it yet?”. The answers can be enlightening!