I Walked Into a Bar and Discovered The Meaning of Ownership

This wasn’t a technical product. Can I even call paper a product in 2010? Regardless, that’s the way the team described the output. I guess it made sense as these documents aligned to other technologies millions were using. Technically it was a service; but a service that had reached maturity.

I had several meetings prior to the kick-off. That in and of itself was unusual; because that specific ask wasn’t included in the contract. However, at the request of the senior leadership team I obliged. After several discussions with teams, individuals, and key stakeholders it was clear the group was under a lot of pressure to show results over the last two quarters.

Clarifying Outcomes

As it turned out, they were counting on the research to provide a path forward, and not just for the product itself. Senior leadership candidly admitted they knew they didn’t have the trust of their teams. They couldn’t pinpoint when they lost that essential element, but they knew they had to earn it back.

I looked down at the contract and the outcomes requested; then upwards and outwards, feeling confused. I proceeded cautiously. “I’m sorry that you’re struggling in this area but I’m not sure how you expect to build back trust with your teams through this contract?”

After some discussion, what became clear was the “ends” they wanted to achieve in building back trust was trying to be justified through the “means” of the research being requested. I told them I’d deliver on the contract, of course. However, the latter request would need to be considered overdelivering. They agreed. I showed myself out.

I reviewed the contract in the lobby before heading home. This last conversation about building back trust coupled with the research made me think I had missed some deliverables buried in the small print. I hadn’t. I wasn’t there to tell them what they wanted to hear; I was asked to provide an objective view of what they created.

It had been a long day. I was stuck in traffic and exhausted. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and it was now past supper time. I got a text from some friends who were getting together for a late dinner in the market. While I was tired, I knew I would just go home and try to find a solution to this last discussion, so I headed back downtown.

Pearl Jam came on the radio. I turned up “Better Man” to turn down my brain. It worked. I stopped thinking about clients and started looking forward to kicking back with friends.

I Walk Into A Bar …

I found everyone sitting at the back of the pub; including one person I hadn’t met. As I was about to sit down, Tom hopped up and pointed to a colleague sitting beside him. “Jeff, meet Dave, Dave this is Jeff.” I stood up and walked over to shake their hand. “Hey Dave, nice to meet you. Why are you hanging out with Tom? Did you lose a bet or do you just have to work with him?” Everyone laughed hysterically.

Generational side note: Sarcasm was a big thing in my generation (x). It was a way of keeping things in perspective and ensured we didn’t take things too seriously. The economy was always in the tank, we were building the internet, and other technologies as they emerged. Business transformation wasn’t a buzz word like today. There wasn’t a need to label it because everyone had this shared experience. Every generation has their own stresses and ways of managing, this was one of ours.

Most were at least one drink into the evening. The conversation was flowing just as freely as the pints. Then something clicked! I made the connection about the ask from the leadership team that evening, thanks to Tom.

Psychological Ownership

Consider what your initial response is to meeting someone for the first time. Typically you’ll say something like “it’s a pleasure” or “nice to meet you” then almost immediately follow up with the question, “What do you do [for a living]?” We do this almost unconsciously. Think of it like a starting point for building trust through shared experiences.

In a similar way, the senior leadership team were so focused on building back the trust of each team they lost sight of the individuals that comprised the teams. What if instead of focusing on what specific team was being blocked, I helped them see their teams as individuals?

There’s actually a proven theory that leads individuals towards this end – and subsequently teams via leadership – it’s called psychological ownership.This is the notion that as individuals we believe “I am what I have and I am what I own.” It’s more than just the sense of pride and purpose we feel around our job; it’s how we identify our value and sense of self.

After some research I realized in order to overdeliver on the contract I would need to not just present the findings in the research but also achieve the following:

  • Define a clear purpose for the product and the outcomes from the research.
  • Ensure credit and lessons learned were explicitly acknowledged to every individual in the final presentation for various tasks.
  • Discuss the “ripple effect” of a teams’ work. Ask the teams to acknowledge the efforts of individuals that resulted in customers failing as an opportunity for everyone to learn and adapt.
  • Demonstrate to the senior leadership through all findings they had a remarkable group of employees; and why they should be given the freedom to take next steps as recommended.

Making My Assumptions Explicit

Prior to the kick-off meeting I wanted to create a safe space for people to know that it was acceptable to be wrong. In fact, it was critical to accept not just ‘where’ but specifically ‘why’ people were not succeeding. To achieve this result I took each of the tasks and recorded my own responses.

At the kick-off meeting I went over the purpose of the project, and ensured alignment on tasks and outcomes. Then I shared my own assumptions about how people would do on each task:

  • Seniors would require the greatest amount of support due to a lack of experience
  • Younger generations would have little time or patience for paper based concepts
  • Industry terms would create confusion amongst persons not in that specific industry
  • The instruction manual would be used frequently to find answers
  • The icon used for finding specific content wouldn’t be seen, let alone used, based on its placement on each page.
  • Ads would be seen infrequently within the instruction manual
  • If individuals gave up trying to find the answer they would grab their phones during the test to look up the answer online.

I expressed in detail my thought process for each task, where I failed or succeeded and why. In addition I shared my own biases based on best practices in design, eye-tracking studies, industry specific content that I didn’t understand, and more.

I then asked for each individuals’ thoughts about why they thought people may fail or succeed on each task. I noted each of these in the same deck at the kick-off meeting, including the names and department of each individual.

All the Research Is a Stage

The research went off without any complications, technical or otherwise. The results were not as expected; which was expected. After I finished compiling the data from the research (both quantitative and qualitative) I put the first three tasks for the results that correlated to where my assumptions were wrong.

When the meeting started I dove into the findings by sharing me own experiences throughout the process. I even noted how my assumption in one task completed contradicted my logic in another. I made it sound like I had lost my mind in the process, causing everyone around the table to laugh out loud.

Then I began focusing on the other tasks. Going through each, I asked people on every team why they thought individuals would either succeed or fail. They provided their rationale which ranged in answers from the perspectives of engineering, marketing, UX, IA, Content, and more. In many cases they added on to their initial assumptions at the kick-off meeting.

After each provided their answer I shared the actual results and explained the perspective of those being asked to complete that specific task. This allowed me to facilitate a discussion between teams while also pointing out professional biases that existed across the organization. It also presented the opportunity to share future changes by the senior leadership team that aligned with the outcomes of those being tested.

At the end of the presentation, the senior leadership took the time to thank everyone in the room and then admitted the assumptions they had made that lead them to where they were at, presently. They asked several questions and got some direct feedback. Not all of it kind, but at least it was honest. It was from this sincerity that they could begin implementing solutions to help individuals specifically, as well as the product.

Once the findings were presented and the meeting wrapped up, teams began pouring over the results. Most importantly no one connected with people within their team, they crossed over to people in each discipline to better understand their perspective in greater detail.

According to the leadership group, I overdelivered. In my mind I hadn’t overdelivered; I simply found a new way to present research findings that also helped bring people together.

Field Notes

This story is an example of the work I completed ahead of research that allowed me to know the internal audience prior to presenting the outcomes of external users. Why is this so important?

Imagine if you were an actor and had insight into the members of your audience ahead of each play. You could share this knowledge with your fellow actors and make adjustments according to audience expectations. Everyone could perform with greater confidence and measure the success of changes made; ranging from observed audience reactions after each scene, to the polite applause versus the standing ovation at the end of the play.

By making my own assumptions explicit I created a psychological safe space for others to be wrong in their assumptions. Also, by making their assumptions explicit I provided the team with the opportunity to understand other professional perspectives. While these varied in some cases there was a greater respect for different approaches, rather than a general indifference based on either ignorance or stereotypes.

To learn more about psychological ownership, and how my approach in 2010 aligned with this theory, check out the video below as author Frederic Laloux, former Associate Partner with McKinsey & Company, describes this theory and how much risk one should take as they move towards self-management.