Pride of ownership is created through focused dedication to a project. That’s a good thing, because it drives the right behavior for growth — until an individual, for whatever reason, loses time and focus for the project. Sometimes, leadership has to make the difficult decision to let people who are closer to the project carry it forward.
Let me tell you a story that shows what I’m talking about.
Database Development and Finding the Plot
One of my final projects in business school was to create a real, working database system. I was chatting with a friend who is a forester for the Department of Defense. Their primary goal is to create realistic training grounds for Army Reserve troops; a secondary goal is to manage a sustainable forest crop, so DOD Forestry can constantly harvest timber whilst maintaining the training grounds and supporting their own budget.
The forests are broken into “plots”, each containing timber that is similar in terms of content and management techniques. One plot might consist primarily of Jack Pine, with a bit of Scrub Oak mixed in. The prescription might be to cut the mature Jack Pines, and periodically burn the plot to encourage growth of both species. Another plot might be mostly White Pine, calling for interim cuts, with a final clear cut to allow for regeneration.
The foresters needed to see plot information, such as location, content, management techniques being utilized, and the history of inventory or prescriptions applied to the plot. They also needed reports showing plots that were due for a refresh on inventory, which had to happen on a periodic basis. To publish bids for a timber sale, they needed information about location and content of the plot. When it was time for summer herbicide applications, they needed to know which plots needed treatment. In the spring, they needed to know where to perform controlled burns. Knowledge about these plots drove the work of 2-4 people, and resulted in sustainable management of 80,000 acres of timber.
Intrigued by their processes, I began flow-charting how they’d use the data. I spent many hours organizing information and doing data entry, creating forms, and producing reports. That project ended up being extremely entertaining and educational for me, in addition to earning my final “A” grade. When it was done, we launched the system and they began relying on it for day-to-day operations.
Losing the Plot
I shifted my focus from projects to graduation, and life moved on. I would occasionally get a request to change a form or create an additional report, but for the most part their system just continued to work. It was a point of pride for me whenever someone from that team mentioned their forestry management system.
I was managing a test team, under a challenging deadline to deliver an upgrade for about 3500 customers. I had gotten a request to update a Plot Prescription report, and I just hadn’t gotten to it. My forester friend, trying to be nice and take something off my To Do list, dropped me an email casually letting me know that someone in the office had figured out how to make the change.
Um…What? Someone ELSE had touched my product? I felt unreasonably offended by the very idea, despite the fact that I really didn’t have time to do what needed to be done.
Pride of Ownership Can Become Empty Ego
Human beings take ownership through their hard work and dedication. Have you ever bought a new house? It’s exciting — new surroundings and the promise of things to come – but it doesn’t really feel like it’s “mine” until I put some hard work in. Pride of ownership drives my actions, and the reward is a nice profit when the time to sell arrives.
Through the hard work and dedication I had applied to the forestry system, I had taken ownership. I had gone above and beyond what was required for my grade, because I had become engaged in the system itself – bringing it to life had been my goal, more so than the grade. My pride of ownership had been rewarded with a working system, as well as the grade.
By the time they let someone else edit that system, a couple years had passed. My period of focus and dedication had also passed. However, my pride of ownership remained. It caused me to feel offended at the very idea of someone else making changes to “my” system….despite the fact that I didn’t have the time or desire to make the changes myself.
That, my friends, is a fine example of the nature of human ego. It’s necessary to have pride of ownership in order to create that successful product – we need humans to dedicate their intelligence and attention to solve problems successfully, and there is a natural tendency to build pride of ownership in this manner. As long as the individual is focused on that product, and aware of current market conditions, pride of ownership is a good thing and should be rewarded appropriately.
I, however, had stopped paying attention to the market conditions. Frankly, I didn’t even understand the change they had requested – otherwise, I probably could have quickly instructed them on how to make the change; after all, it was only an Access database with some forms and reports…nothing too complicated.
If I had let my ego control my actions, I would have responded out of that feeling of being offended, and attempted to regain control of a system that I no longer even remembered. I would have inserted myself into the situation, slowing down the progress that had already been made – after all, the people making the changes already understood the market condition that was forcing the change. I, on the other hand, did not. I had the ability to understand, sure – but I was busy with other things, dedicating my intelligence to solving a whole different set of problems.
What I was feeling was no longer pride of ownership, earned through focus and dedication. It had progressed to empty ego – a feeling of ownership based on intelligence applied IN THE PAST. The feeling of ownership, without dedication, is pure ego. It was time to let go, to trust that there were other capable people closer to the problem than I was. It was time to be available if they had a question about the past, but to let them drive the future.
I still carry a feeling of pride for understanding their problems and creating an effective system, which was in use for about ten years. That pride is alright.
What’s not alright is to believe that the knowledge I had then holds true today. Knowledge is fleeting, because the market changes. If you’re not in the market, learning and listening to current conditions, then you don’t have the ability to guide future direction of the product.
Founders Must Evolve with the Business
Isn’t that the same issue a successful founder faces? They understood a market’s problems, envisioned a solution, and worked hard — taking risks and dedicating their intelligence and time to building a successful offering and business. These people earn the right to their feeling of ownership, by blazing new trails in their industries. As success builds, the business and offerings grow. The market changes. And along the way, the founder also changes.
In the beginning, they may have been struggling financially, having taken great risk to plunge into this entrepreneurial endeavor. They worked hard, motivated by a vision of a way to make the world better — using their product, business, and market knowledge to drive the wheel of success, creating momentum and watching their companies grow.
Along the way, they also become distracted – necessarily and without fault, the founder becomes focused on other things. There is a business to run, people to hire. Each new department or title must be researched and envisioned, as the organizational structure is built. Housing for teams becomes a concern, and must be dealt with. Additionally, the founder (which we’ve already qualified as “successful”) has an easier financial situation – and after years of dedication and hard work, they decide to take some time to play. They take vacations for the first time in years, going the places they could only dream of before. They purchase a bigger home, buy a boat….begin enjoying the fruits of their labor.
The distraction of the founder is normal, necessary, and healthy. What gets us in trouble is when the founder doesn’t recognize their natural separation from the market. If they continue to feel close pride of ownership at the offering level, without current market knowledge, they are injecting a real risk of failure into the business. Others will read this as ego — the founder trying to make decisions based on old information or how we did things in the past. In reality, though, this is merely misplaced pride of ownership. The founder must learn to trust the teams! Otherwise, ego will cause everything else to run amok.
Merely due to the passage of time, the market has changed. Technology has changed as well – what can be done with the code is markedly different than when the founder started writing it. Over time, the founder even becomes unfamiliar with existing skills inside the organization! They aren’t necessarily aware that so-and-so is great at design, or that so-and-so understands the newest technology better than anyone else. If the founder tries to get involved based on ego rather than current knowledge, it is demotivating to the teams and the company as a whole. How can a team make the right decision for their current market, if the very creator of the company is encouraging a different approach? How does the company navigate those trade-offs, when the person who knows the least about the market is trying to dictate decisions?
Founders, Check Your Ego
To continue the success of the company they worked so hard to build, the founder must learn to control their ego. It was appropriate, maybe even necessary, in the beginning – but now it’s time to kick it back to the corner where it belongs, and learn to trust the wisdom of our teams. Rather than trying to stay deeply involved in the offerings, the founder must focus on ensuring that the line of communication is open between the company and the market, so that the wisdom of the market can funnel into the teams.
After the company has proven success, and continues to grow, the founder’s time is best spent encouraging a deep and continued connection between individuals inside the company and the markets they serve.
Successful companies run on market knowledge, not ego.