Ownership vs. Visibility

“You don’t currently have permission to access this folder” – Microsoft Windows

I spent some time yesterday running a coaching exercise with a group of product owners to help them start utilizing a regular retrospective to reflect on improvement as an individual product owner and as a team. I knew it would be challenging as the engagement of thi role often spans across an entire organization so it could be easy to slip from “continual improvement” of self and team to that of complaint and focus on all the pieces to which they interact. In the end, I think they did a great job to start taking a moment to allow for some self-reflection.

One thing I did try and make visible as we worked through areas of “doing well”, “needs improvement” and “abandon” was to reinforce the idea of a separation between ownership and visibility. The reason I thought this was necessary is that the items of time management and focus were identified across the group. So I asked them (after letting some debate occur at times) as they identified issues (as to keep it focused on individual and team improvement) 1 simple question:

“Is this something you can control or fix or is this something you seek to make visible”?

That surprised a lot of them initially I think, as their role itself is aligned at a very high level within our organization and they sit with the people both within the business and IT that are responsible for organizational level change. So they had never really even considered not being part of that organizational conversation in the “how things get done” on a broader scale. Plus when we identified the responsibilities of the role, it was clear that they feel highly aligned to bigger strategic goals as they sit in the forefront of items they identified. But they took to the idea well and really allowed it to help guide them along as they consider what they identified.

But this had me considering something broader, the idea of ownership vs visibility itself and the positive and negative consequences of both aspects.

Lack of Control

I don’t think that there is anyone that prefers to not control a situation and be subject to the end result. It’s not a comfortable feeling. For example, I know as a father that I have always struggled with the relationship and focus my daughter has with school. My viewpoint is that you need to take this seriously, work hard, make good grades so you can take advantage of this educational opportunity. So when she would tell me “I forgot to turn in an assignment” the dad lecture soon followed. But one day after sitting with my wife (who I often think helps me refocus) I realized, I cannot “own” her work or motivation. She has to attend the classes, she has to perform the work to the ability at which she is capable and she has to assume the responsibility to turn in the assignments. The control I have in this situation is ultimately limited. Sure, I was able to ground her for bad grades, take away privileges, etc but when it all boiled down to it, I could not go an “do” the work that she was being asked to do. I had more reactionary authority than prescriptive authority (or so I thought initially). What was definitely within my control was to make my expectations clear, indicate what would happen should she not meet them and follow through. So my span of control was to help her succeed which meant she and I had to ensure I had visibility to do so.

Can you see me now?

“What we need to do is “… How many people will catch themselves saying this today? I will if I pay enough attention. And then, how many things will we say that about in which we actually have no authority, input, responsibility or experience the consequences if it does not work out? Probably a lot of those “what we need to do” statements fall into this category. We all have opinions and often we all feel the comfort and the freedom to express them within a healthy organizational culture but what about when we express our opinion and hold onto it as more than an opinion? It’s input. We are helping you solve a problem, just listen to me! If we maintain this stance then we experience personal frustration when things do not unfold as we suggested or within our expectation of need. I’ve done it. And every single time I catch myself, I usually think “it’s really dumb for me to keep worrying about this as someone else has to implement it”.

What we are really seeking is visibility. I want you to know the pain point, the frustration, my idea, my suggestion. And that is fantastic. A culture that allows that open communication and transparency of thought is a fantastic place to be. But without separating it from the notion that other people may be responsible to make the decision and implement within the scope of a backlog of other items they have in place can end in personal frustration, lack of trust, a “time sink” of worry over the end result and a general idea that no one is listening. I get it. I have experienced it. I have felt this way too.


I used to work with a unix administrator who had a placard outside his office that read “Your emergency is not my priority”. I thought it was funny (and a little of a up yours type comment which amused me as a young tech). But as I worked beside him, I noticed that everyone that came to see him had a “critical issue”. I mean each and every issue was critical. And as I grew in the tech industry I realized that this often applied to features as well from stakeholders. I also observed it in my own life; why did I have to wait between 8-12 for the cable guy to arrive, did they not realize I needed my wireless network? Did they not hear me tell them that I worked in IT and needed service? Did they think this was providing good customer service.

I have grown quite a bit older and perhaps gained a bit more patience but even as recent as this weekend I had to catch myself and think “am I in control here of this outcome”? I recently went to a fast food restaurant drive up to get some dinner with my wife and the line was very long. Not only was the line long but we barely moved forward to get to the order area. I felt myself becoming frustrated based on the situation (and probably a need for some lunch). The longer I sat, the more frustrated I became. I began to ask myself questions in my head like:

  • “What is wrong with these people, do they not realize that we all are waiting to order”?
  • “They really should do something to be more efficient, this is ridiculous to wait this long”
  • “Are there enough people working today”?
  • “What is the problem here”?

But then like a weird sensation it hit me. You cannot control how rapidly they will serve you or how soon this line will move forward. You can control if you continue to sit and wait or choose something else for lunch. You can call the number on the door and make visible your bad experience. My span of control was to leave or move slowly forward and order the lunch I wanted and to make visible to the company my experience.

I had to let it go.  I had to allow the people responsible to solve how the restaurant was run address the problem. And, even more important, it might not be solved the next time I returned for lunch. I had to accept that. I had to embrace what my actual options could be and act on those and then allow myself to offload it to the owner of the solution.

My emergency of getting that lunch item was not their priority at the moment. I actually had no idea what might be impacting the delay in service. I could only speculate and complain about the experience, which actually did not solve anything. But I could make it visible so that someone who could solve it could do so.

You may be thinking about now, how does lunch frustrations and concerns about your daughter’s education translate to this idea in the broader context. These are just simple examples of where my initial thought of control created personal frustration, used up necessary time that I could have done something productive and allowed me to let my mind speculate on why the problem existed, offer potential solutions and not fully understanding where my span of control started and where it did not exist. These examples demonstrate how if I accepted the idea that I could make someone visible to the problem/need or expectation and extend trust of the people who owned the responsibility to solve it, I could be less frustrated, regain wasted time thinking I was solving everyone’s problems and focus on the actionable things I could do, like get a really good lunch at the end of a long wait and see my daughter turn her own grades around and attend her college graduation.

So today when you find yourself immediately thinking or saying “what we need to do is”, pause for a moment. Are you making visible a pain point/need/problem or improvement or are you mentally allowing yourself to assume ownership for this thing even if your span of control is the end result? Give yourself a moment to think about what you own and can solve yourself personally or within your team and make visible the items to others to give them ideas so that they can affect change. Be willing to be heard and allow someone to set priority and act. Communicate your need (sometimes we do have an emergency or time frame) but free up your own personal time and mental energy to solve everything. It led me to a really good hamburger and a college graduate at the end.

I’ll close with a quote I read this morning as I was thinking about this that seemed to frame this concept in a positive light: “When you let go you are creating space for something better”.