We, human beings, have that incredible ability to exploit, exaggerate and travesty every (originally) valuable idea we encounter. That is not necessarily because of some malice - we tend to focus on meaningless (yet visible) details instead of intentions and the purpose behind (the aforementioned idea). Oh well.
One concept that is getting twisted in a very disturbing way (these days) is leadership. Apparently, the hype for agility is pretty much over (for now), and now more and more organizations understand that to make things happen, there must always be someone relentlessly pushing for actions & results - at pretty much every level of (a healthy) organization.
That's why those companies want "leaders" and "owners" - unfortunately, it frequently gets slightly out of control. Well, first of all - it is interpreted literally:
- if you want recognition, promotion, or just a raise - you need to be a helms(wo)man for some project/product/initiative
- to get the "credit" for (eventual) accomplishment, you need your name explicitly put as a "leader"/"champion"/"owner" of that endeavor - it's generals who get the laurels, after all
Theoretically, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this model. Everyone is encouraged to bring up an initiative, cultivate it, "sell it out", and finally - deliver. Ownership from the inception until the aftermath - is there any better way to make people proactive and creative? Well, Houston, we may have a problem here ...
If you're lucky enough to have a small army of ambitious, highly motivated individuals on board, you may end up with a stockpile of fine-grained yet collectively meaningless projects, mini-projects, and projectettes. A flock of disconnected ideas that will:
- draw focus into different (sometimes even contradicting) directions
- have to be maintained
- increase the overall chaos (but in a far less creative way than you think)
Why so? Because all those efforts will be optimized for one single purpose:
I need personal success to make a career progression step - that's what matters.
Yes, there may be a similar project in Team X, but there's already an owner, and I'm sure these two meaningless details in my concept will make a substantial difference.
Yes, folks in Team Y had a great idea with tremendous potential, and now they need the help of someone with my skills, but - well - it's their project. They should have planned it better, shouldn't they?
So, how about MY project. All good?
We already know so many results of that kind of attitude. X communication tools created by company G (none has got any real traction). X ways to run a container by company A (but which one is for me?!). X tools in an AIML stack by company M (all of them half-baked and barely usable). There were so many Product Managers who needed their name tags on something ...
I hope you see my point already. If the organization doesn't put obstacles in your way, it's not that hard to spawn more and more initiatives frantically, left and right. It's much harder to:
- filter the ones that have the potential to make a substantial difference
- go beyond release 1.0 (of something that was already created), when you need to gather up first conclusions and implement the lesson learned
- clean the mess you may have created because of wrong assumptions or sub-par execution (write-off)
- effectively join forces to execute an idea with a broader, more ambitious scope (and potential impact, ofc)
Leadership doesn't mean being a flag carrier - the most visible person in the squad. Leadership is making things happen - which can happen in both the first and the last row. Leadership is about making a difference, using your leverage to tackle the problems, supporting those who need support, and triggering what's the best in other people around.
Ownership is not about having your name put as an "owner" in the header of an SoW (Scope of Work) document. Ownership is about not letting the ball be dropped. Ownership means reliability, rock-solid commitments, and unquestionable transparency.
To conclude the proper (IMHO) terminology: yes, a project (or product) needs someone (a single person) Accountable. Accountable not only for things that are supposed to happen but also for the final goal (whether the outcomes match the assumptions and expectations). And ... what's beyond (the future vision or at least a realistic take-over). That definitely requires some leadership skills and attitude. Not necessarily in the execution department - sometimes it's a matter of finding proper people who will get the shit done, which may potentially require far more leadership and ownership.
It's a good moment to reach my conclusion (finally!). Instead of appreciating and promoting frantic hyperactivity and mediocre initiatives (quantity over quality), companies would do much better (IMHO) if they'd incentivize:
- eliminating waste / decommissioning what didn't work (but generates cost, dissolves focus, or impairs other efforts)
- making a difference in the field (regardless of who was at the helm)
- focus on their already made bets (make or break - there's nothing worse than stagnation in suspension)
- successful follow-ups/pivots that made a substantial improvement backed with meaningful numbers (not some bullshit input metrics)
Those activities also require a lot of leadership and ownership but are significantly harder to run (and frequently don't make such a spectacular "wow effect" as a well-marketed yet useless novelty).
One awesome product nearly always brings far more benefit than ten mediocre ones. In terms of added value, but also publicity, customer loyalty, and potential future opportunities.