I trust you

He who does not trust enough, will not be trusted. – Lao Tzu

In my opinion one of the single most important things you can give and receive in a professional environment is trust. As a manager, you have to trust your team members, and as a team member, you need to be trusted by your boss. This week I’m going to talk about the approach I use to enable trust while still maintaining productivity and accountability.

I’m a very hands-off manager. My default is to trust the people I work with to get their jobs done. But how does that work in practice? My current approach is tell all my new hires that my job is to give goals and direction. Their job is to achieve those goals, and how they do it is up to them. The best way I’ve found of phrasing this is to say that they have 51% say in how they accomplish their tasks and I have 49% say.(*) I get to have input and I get to give advice, but in the end it is up to them how they actually accomplish the goals I’ve set out. If they want to go a different direction than what I advise, then they absolutely should. If their solution works, fantastic. If it doesn’t, no problem; my only expectation is that they fix it, because they own it.

* BTW I can’t claim credit for this phrasing. It comes from another great book that I highly recommend called Multipliers. Go read this book as well.

Trusting someone with a task bestows ownership of that task to that person. Stop and think about that for a moment. Think about something you own that is precious to you. If you own something, I mean actually own it, odds are good you’re going to treat it much more carefully than something you don’t own. You’re going to make different decisions about what you do with it and be more invested in the outcome. This is especially true in a work environment – if you don’t own something, why should you care? Someone else will get the credit if you succeed and you will get the blame if you fail. That sounds awesome, right? No, no it doesn’t. Yet sadly, that is a very common working environment.

This is what I call the strong ownership model. It should be a cornerstone of your company culture. It should be communicated in person, on the wiki, and however else is possible throughout the organization that this is how things work. That this is official policy. Individuals own and are responsible for their tasks. As a corollary to that, it also needs to be communicated who is actually working on what tasks. I’ve been at places where policies and task assignments were made in private, and management refused to publicly confirm anything. This created a terrible culture with lots of back stabbing and people taking credit for work they didn’t do. That is not a healthy environment.

One common objection I’ve run into regarding the strong ownership model is that there is no accountability for failure; the owner can do whatever she wants, right? Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. My response to this is to remember that the manager still sets the goals and the direction, and the individual is still responsible for achieving, not just attempting, the goals that have been set out. They are still very much accountable for their tasks, and more so than in a weak ownership model. In the weak ownership model, the lead simply tells the individual exactly what to do. As I mentioned above, in that case the individual isn’t really accountable however things turn out. They’ve simply become a pair of hands for their manager. :-p Why would anyone put in a serious effort in that case? It’s a bit of a hard sell.

Another objection I’ve gotten is that surely this won’t work when the person is junior. They don’t have the necessary experience, they’re going to make bad decisions, etc. Actually, I do mean it, and even more so than in the case of a senior person, because it’s a great way for them to learn. Junior team members should be strongly encouraged to seek out advice from their boss as well other members of the team to help guide them. (You have open and healthy communication on your team, right? Hint: this is a future post.) Assuming they’re taking advantage of that, in my experience, 8 times out of 10 the junior individual will follow the advice they’re given from the team. 1 time out of 10 they will try something else and it won’t work, but that’s OK as long as they fix it. They own it, remember, so it’s ultimately their responsibility to make it work. The remaining 1 time they will go a different direction and it will be great! How awesome is that going to feel for them. What I’ve found is that giving junior team members that level of ownership allows them to progress at a much faster rate than if they’re treated simply as pairs of hands. Yes, it can be a bit bumpy at times, but at one year they will be significantly further along than peers who have simply been told what to do and exactly how to do it.

A third objection I’ve gotten is what happens if someone doesn’t heed the advice they’re given and fails too much. This is a legitimate thing, and calls for a direct, constructive conversation with the individual about how to change that trajectory. If you read my post from last week, I mentioned at the end a book called Crucial Accountability. It’s this third case where that book comes in super handy but I’m going to save that for a future post.

So how do you achieve a strong ownership model?

Step one is to make sure it’s communicated far and wide that everyone has 51% say in how they accomplish their tasks, and are clear about what their tasks are.

Step two is to pay close attention to how you communicate with the people that report to you. As I mentioned last week, you should be listening more than talking. If you find yourself giving answers instead of asking questions, than you probably aren’t giving ownership.

Step three is to make sure you’re engaged and setting clear goals. Negligence on your part does not equal ownership. Make sure you’re aware of what everyone on your team is doing. Make sure you’re acknowledging when someone is doing well, both with them directly and with the team at large. Giving positive reinforcement is always a good thing. The thing you have to avoid, and certainly I’ve been guilty of this, is riding in to save the day because you didn’t do well setting goals. The task owner needs to be crystal clear about what the desired result is.

Finally, step four is to make sure you have ownership across all disciplines. The games industry is somewhat unique in that we have myriad disciplines all working together. Programming, design, art, audio, QA, production. In my experience a common pitfall is for one discipline to feel that they have ownership over how another discipline achieves their goals. It is absolutely imperative that each discipline have ownership of their piece of the pie. Other teams can give input (they’re 49%) but at the end of the day, each team needs to own how they achieve their part of the myriad goals of the project.

Now, what if you’re on the other end of this equation? Your boss doesn’t give you ownership. They don’t trust you and it’s all around unpleasant. First off, I’d recommend you read my post from last week on communication. You’re going to need the necessary tools to start having some important conversations. Secondly, you’ll want to keep  your discussions focused around ownership. Help your boss understand the outcome of what they’re doing, and get them to consider if that’s actually what they want. In my experience, most people are either unaware of their behavior, or they are aware and they simply don’t know a better way to proceed (very few managers get any sort of useful training, especially in the tech industry). Most people want to do a good job, and will want to fix it once it’s brought to their attention.

As I think of it, I’ve neglected to mention a very crucial second pillar that must be a part of your culture if you adopt the strong ownership model. However, I’ve run out of time and words for this week, so I will have to talk about it next week. Such a cliff hanger! Can you stand the excitement? 😉

Update: The followup post is live.

Until next time. Agree or disagree with anything I’ve said? Questions? Let me know in the comments below or via TwitterFacebook or email contact at captainbyrank dot com.


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