One for All or All for One? Instilling Team Ownership

As any good manager knows, a team infused with a strong sense of responsibility will produce a higher quality outcome. Instilling ownership across a team is more an art than a science. It is a transformation that requires a deliberate communication style, some leadership savvy, delicate execution, and patience.

When Ownership Is Low

On a recent process improvement project, I was facilitating a team of client employees. The team was cross-functional, consisting of people from different departments within the IT organization who were directly involved in the process we were reviewing. They all had their “real job” to work on, in addition to process improvement with me.

As usual, fractional dedication was leading to reduced ownership. The unspoken underlying assumption was that the work would be completed by the facilitator: me. The team believed the work was important, but they each saw themselves as Cs (those Consulted) on the RACI matrix, at best.

Specifically, we were preparing for a Value Stream Mapping workshop: a full-day, large-audience session to walk through the current state of the development-to-release process in detail. Mapping the current state at a high level is fine with a team of Cs. But the next step – filling out task attribute cards for each step in the process – definitely needs Rs (those Responsible).

After we mapped the high-level process collectively, I booked a series of small, 2- to 3-person sessions to execute a multi-phase process that resulted in widespread engagement across the team.

A phased approach to eliciting more responsibility from a team.
(Timeline units may vary depending on the size of the team.)

Phase 1: Ask for Contribution

I approached the first round of sessions with a “Hey, help me out with this,” vibe. People like to be helpful, so this method succeeded in making participants feel positive right from the start.

In these first meetings, I shared more info about our upcoming VSM workshop, and explained that the team members themselves would be presenting. The details would be best explained by those performing the tasks. To help the team present, we’d be working on task cards to capture key attributes of each process step. Then we worked on the cards together—but I was the one taking notes and making edits. Each team member still felt they were helping me with the cards, although the seed was planted that they’d ultimately be responsible for conveying the information in the workshop.

Phase 2: Foster Collaboration 

Of course, the volume of work was too high to finish in the space of one meeting, so I scheduled a second round of working sessions. For this round, I used more inclusive language: “Let’s finish those task cards!” The phrasing was intentional to position the activity as a collaboration, with equal ownership.

Usually, we’d get almost all the way through the work in the second session. For any leftover work, I’d ask the teammate if they could take a stab at the task cards independently. By then, the mechanics of the assignment were clear, so the teammates accepted the individual assignment.

Phase 3: Instill Ownership

The week before the VSM workshop, I booked final sessions with each teammate. Here, my language took on the third and final form: “I want to make sure you’re comfortable with your cards.” The dynamic was now of a facilitator helping a team member. We reviewed the work each person had done independently, discussed any last questions, and left the sessions feeling prepared for our big day.

Phase 4: Release Control

The team did a fantastic job in their presentations. Though the room was full of higher-ups, which can be intimidating, the team confidently presented their tasks and answered questions. We received feedback that the team had gone through an obvious transformation in attitude. They impressed the audience with their knowledge and transparency. It was a presentation that I, as a facilitator and outsider, could never have done on my own.

Through a gradual, phased effort, a team leader can successfully transition ownership of a project from one person to many. The language and approach you use in small-group settings greatly influences the level of responsibility and how it permeates throughout the team.

Whether you’re in a leadership position, or facilitating without authority, try this approach the next time you sense a lack of ownership. We would love to hear your results!

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