Drive ownership from the inception of projects

Joe Chang

ex-CTO at Uber Freight



Driving projects forward is often compared to herding cats. You'll often hear of team members not believing in a task, and this resulting in them doing a mediocre job, or misunderstanding the objective completely. Many managers rely upon a kanban or agile system of user stories that are then posted for the taking. But, how can we actually drive ownership of a task or feature? What is the best way to ensure individuals feel pride in what they're building, and put their full effort behind it, instead of just doing it to move the post-it from one lane to another?

Actions taken

I'd suggest taking a lesson from the movie "Inception". The most powerful motivator for someone is an idea that a person arrives to on their own. Just like in the movie, there needs to be a conductor to provide direction, and sometimes the solution that is arrived at is not quite what the conductor imagined. But, ultimately, having the engineer feel ownership of their project is infinitely more powerful than simply accomplishing a named task that someone else designed. When getting people together to brainstorm and design, it's your job as a manager to build the right framing, but you shouldn't dictate the solution. Use artifacts and diagrams the discussion in the right direction, but never dictate the landing spot. Often, your team will come up with a much better idea than you originally imagined. By using this process, you end up with the post-its being written by them, but within the straw-man and framing that you have provided. However, when using this process, it's also the manager's responsibility to keep the discussion on track, to drive towards action and a resolution that takes all the concerns into account that you, as a manager, are aware of. I employed this technique recently, aligning a few Engineering Managers with a new work-driver and metrics alignment process. While the conversation was initially very scattered, I took the helm by taking the whiteboard marker (he who holds the whiteboard marker holds the attention). I drew the major pieces of the workflow, and kept it light and fun, but allowed members of the team to contribute, so everyone could contribute to the ideation process. This ensured that they'd believe in what was being created. The whiteboard marker holder actually has an important job: quickly processing what's being suggested, analyzing the suggestion to discern whether it helps to converge or diverge, and documenting the suggestions on the board accordingly.

Lessons learned

Leading in this way involves you acting partly as a servant-leader, but also partly as a visionary, and therefore, it helps to have a strawman of how the process could work to build on. It's especially important in high-performing organizations to realize that driving a direction takes up time. It's more important to build a rational straw-man and let people come to a common conclusion than to blindly enforce a new process. Ensure you encourage your team to make the last leap to come to the conclusion. Doing so creates a motivating force more powerful than any bonus or accolade.

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Joe Chang

ex-CTO at Uber Freight

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyDecision MakingCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingPerformance ReviewsFeedback Techniques

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